Lack of information slows forensic identification of dead bodies
The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26 December 2004 created unprecedented challenges for forensic identification of dead bodies. However, the equally unprecedented collaboration of forensic scientists from more than 29 countries working together helped speed up the process, experts said at a WHO press briefing.
The press briefing was part of an international conference analysing lessons learnt from the Tsunami. ‘The Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia’ is being organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Royal Thai Government, from 4-6 May 2005. It is held at Phuket, Thailand, one of the areas affected by the tsunami.
Thai forensic expert Dr. Pongruk Sribanditmongkol said that although 60% of bodies have been identified in Thailand, 2000 bodies are still awaiting identification. “This has been slowed by the lack of information from relatives, many of whom may not have survived the tsunami,” he explained.
The lack of information is a widespread problem in many Tsunami-affected areas. “In some parts of Indonesia, entire villages including families and paperwork that could help identify bodies were swept away,” said Dr. Luis Jorge Perez, Regional Adviser for Emergency Health in Action for the WHO South-east Asia Region. This was further complicated by the fact that bodies were swept into the ocean, sometimes even to different countries. Ten days after the Tsunami, for example, corpses, reportedly from Sri Lanka, were swept on to the beaches of the northern Maldives.
Identification was also made difficult because bodies were buried quickly due to a fear of epidemics. As WHO repeatedly emphasized, “Dead bodies do not produce epidemics and are not a risk for public health. In the Tsunami, most people died due to drowning or trauma.”
Depending on the law of the country, a missing person may not be declared dead for many years. This has created difficulties following the Tsunami, as the number of missing is so large. For example, in Indonesia alone around 93 000 people are still listed as missing.
In Thailand, for example, Dr. Sribanditmongkol pointed out, where the law requires a seven-year waiting period for a missing person to be declared dead, there have been proposals to keep unidentified bodies for seven years. Comparing the Tsunami with the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center tragedy, Dr. Barbara Butcher, Director Investigations, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City said, “During the Tsunami, bodies were washed away to sea, never to be found again. In the 9/11 disaster, many bodies vapourised, never to be found again. Families need a closure.” Dr. Butcher also pointed out that forensic procedure does not extend just to identification of bodies, but also the process of dealing with the body, and burial or cremation methods, so as to avoid hazards.
Leading New-York based forensic expert Dr. Tom Brandolo also emphasized that the Tsunami helped highlight the importance of forensic identification, and requested more technology and investment in this field as a part of emergency response preparedness.
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