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WHO: Corpses pose little threat

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(CNN) -- Rotting corpses pose little threat to the health of survivors, and there is no need to rush to bury or cremate them, health officials have said.

"A person who dies is not, in themselves, a health threat to people around," Dr. David Nabarro, executive director for sustainable development and healthy environments at the World Health Organization, said Wednesday.

"After a number of hours, the pathogens inside the dead person's body become not dangerous. They usually decompose and die. And the dead person therefore is not a primary threat to the health of others."

While there might be other reasons not to wait to give the bodies a decent burial, "We should not be rushing to do mass burials for the sake of public health," he said.

Survivors faced the greatest risk of disease from exposure to feces or other contaminants produced by live people, Nabarro said, and that means it was critical for health officials to move quickly to provide survivors with clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.

"That must be given priority," he said.

The mistaken belief that decomposing bodies lead to outbreaks of diseases often leads authorities to undertake mass burials or cremations, which can add to the suffering of survivors, said Dr. Dana Van Alphen, an adviser to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which is a regional office of WHO.

"In too many cases," said Van Alphen, "authorities rush to bury victims without identifying them, under the false belief that bodies pose a serious threat of epidemics. It is just not true."

The practice also violated the human rights of victims and survivors, she said.

Burials should be conducted so that the bodies could later be exhumed, health officials said.

Bodies should be buried at least a meter (three feet) below ground and far from water sources, according to "Infection Hazards of Human Cadavers," a chapter in "A Guide to Infection Control in the Hospital" (B.C. Decker Inc. 1998).

"The major hazard facing emergency service personnel is spilt blood and any risk can be greatly reduced by preventing contact with blood (use of gloves, face and eye protection, and protective clothing where necessary)," the authors wrote.

The major public health concern now is lack of potable water, Dr. Daniel Lopez-Acuna of PAHO said.

Contaminated water can lead to outbreaks of dysentery and cholera, malaria and dengue, he said.

"This is, without a doubt, the major problem we need to be looking at."

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