Water Sanitation Health

Disposal of dead bodies in emergency conditions

WHO/WEDC technical notes on WASH in emergencies

Step 2 - Dealing with public health emergencies

Public health emergencies causing mass fatalities are relatively rare, but when they do occur extreme care must be taken when handling the dead because of the risk of cross-infection. Table 8.2 lists the diseases for which infection from dead bodies is possible. The measures required to prevent infection vary according to each disease, but in general:

    • Mortuary staff should wear protective gloves, masks, boots and overalls
    • Mortuaries must be kept cool and well ventilated
    • Ritual cleaning and preparation of the body should be avoided
    • Bodies should be sealed in water-tight body bags and relatives prevented from touching them
    • Burial should take place close to the point of death, and the number of people present should be restricted

Missing persons

During an emergency, family members can become separated. Missing persons should be considered to be alive unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Alongside measures for dealing with the collection and disposal of the dead, there should be measures in place to enable families to discover the whereabouts of their relatives. Further information about missing persons is available from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement at http://www.icrc.org/.