Five disaster myths

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 19 November 2013 07:10 GMT

Relatives stand by candles lit on a mass grave, where they buried 17 members of their Songalia family who died when Super Typhoon Haiyan hit Leyte, by the side of a road south of Tacloban, on Nov. 15, 2013. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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Dead bodies do not cause epidemics. Aid distributed in a random way reaches the strongest, not those most in need. Most lives are saved by locals in the immediate aftermath of a disaster

Every time disasters strike, myths abound. Here are five of the most common, according to the World Health Organization and British Red Cross: 

MYTH 1: Dead bodies should be buried quickly to avoid disease.

Dead bodies do not cause epidemics after natural disasters. In fact, the surviving population is more likely to spread disease.

This is because the victims are not killed by disease. Even those who were sick at the time of death are unlikely to spread disease because most infectious organisms die within hours of a person’s death. One exception is HIV, which has been found to survive six days. 

Having said that, bodies decompose quickly in a hot climate, and the smell can be overwhelming. 

MYTH 2: Disposing of bodies quickly through mass burials or cremations can help create a sense of relief among survivors.

Mass burials or cremations can make it harder for survivors in the long run. They can also create legal problems for the relatives of the victims, unless the bodies are identified.

Survivors usually feel more at peace and are better able to cope with their loss if they can identify and recover the remains of their loved ones, and follow their religious practices in their burial or cremation. 

MYTH 3: Everyone is equally affected by a disaster.

Disasters affect the poor the most, especially women, children, the elderly and disabled. They are more likely to be killed, and if they survive, they will find it harder to rebuild their lives.

MYTH 4:  Any kind of international aid is needed, now.

Before dispatching teams and aid, it is important to first establish what is needed, where, and who needs it the most, and then deliver it in a way that ensures it reaches the vulnerable.

Aid distributed in a random way is more likely reach the strongest, not those most in need. It may also be the wrong kind of aid which can simply add to the chaos.

Donated clothing, food that is unfamiliar to survivors, and powerful medicines that should only be given under close medical supervision, are just some of the things that come under the heading of inappropriate aid.

Sending in teams of medics or other professionals with the wrong skills or training can also create problems.

MYTH 5: Disaster-hit people are too dazed and shocked to take responsibility for helping themselves and others.

Most lives are saved by locals in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. They are on the spot and often dig through rubble and debris with their bare hands to rescue people.

Many survivors are helped by friends and relatives. 

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