The Deadly Corpse Myth

Authorities in China and Myanmar are concerned that the bodies of victims of natural disasters could cause epidemics among survivors. But public health officials say the likelihood that dead bodies imperil the lives of survivors is remote. Alex Chadwick talks with Dr. Oliver Morgan, an epidemiologist who has studied the links between death and infection.

Doctor Dispels Myth that Corpses Spread Disease

It has been a week since a cyclone devastated the Myanmar coastline. Tens of thousands of bodies have yet to be identified or buried. United Nations consultant and expert on directing disaster relief Claude de Ville de Goyet talks with Andrea Seabrook about the difficult task ahead for Myanmar.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Tens of thousands of people have died in the delta of Myanmar, possibly even hundreds of thousands. While that many dead bodies cause many problems, they do not necessarily cause disease. Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet is a United Nations consultant and a veteran at directing disaster relief.

Dr. CLAUDE DE VILLE DE GOYET (United Nations Consultant, Disaster Relief Aid): Dead bodies of healthy people do not spread disease. In fact in the infectious person, it's much more a risk when it is alive than when it is dead. You deal with bodies which are already decomposing and so the traditional human-to-human germ cell, microbes, are not anymore present because they cannot survive in the condition of the bodies. What you have is decaying bacteria which are not very dangerous.

SEABROOK: Where does this idea, then, come from that dead bodies, a large amount of dead bodies in a disaster like this, spread disease?

Dr. DE VILLE DE GOYET: It's very difficult to know because it seems to be really going back very much. I believe it's maybe from the European fear of the great plague, where really dead bodies were a source of flea contaminations and a source of plague.

SEABROOK: Dr. De Ville de Goyet says that the fact that corpses do not cause disease doesn't mean they're not a concern.

Dr. DE VILLE DE GOYET: You have logistical problems. It's not the public health problem, it's the logistical problems. So you have to have a burial, but you have to do it showing some type of respect, not dumping dead bodies with carcass of animals, but showing some respect, because people need a grievance process. People need to feel respected and this is shown by the way you treat dead bodies. In all cultures, some ritual, some respect is very much required. That's what makes a difference between human and animals.

SEABROOK: Dr. De Ville de Goyet says more developed nations can afford to take greater care with corpses than less developed countries. In Thailand after the tsunami four years ago, for instance, officials were able to fingerprint bodies and keep them refrigerated. The situation in Myanmar, he says, is likely to require mass burials.

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