The coronavirus crisis has taken on a new, frightening dimension after it was discovered that a dead patient infected with the disease had spread it to a medical examiner.
Experts say the death, which happened in Thailand, marks the first time that a staff member at a forensic medicine unit dealing with dead bodies has been found to have contracted the virus.
The development is putting professionals who deal with dead bodies on notice — this is a virus that can jump from the dead to the living — reported BuzzFeed, citing a study in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.
“According to our best knowledge, this is the first report on COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a Forensic Medicine unit,” reads an introduction to the study. The study encourages professionals to take the same care at morgues as they would in an operating theatre.
“At present, there is no data on the exact number of COVID-19 contaminated corpses since it is not a routine practice to examine for COVID-19 in dead bodies in Thailand,” the study adds.
“Nevertheless, infection control and universal precautions are necessary. Forensic professionals have to wear protective devices including a protective suit, gloves, goggles, cap and mask. The disinfection procedure used in operation rooms might be applied in pathology/forensic units too.”
The study was authored by Won Sriwijitalai of Bangkok, Thailand’s RVT Medical Center and Viroj Wiwanitkit of Hainan Medical University in China.
Angelique Corthals, a professor of pathology at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told BuzzFeed:
“Not just the medical examiners, but morgue technicians and the people in funeral homes need to take extra care. It is a real concern.”
By Tuesday, Thailand had reported 2,613 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 41 fatalities.
Thai officials had, in March, told the public that dead bodies could not transmit COVID-19; a report in the Bangkok Post quoted Somsak Akhasilp, director-general of the country’s Department of Medical Services, as saying that once the host died, the virus died with them. Other global health bodies had provided conflicting reports, and as of yet there is no major research conducted into the transmissibility of COVID-19 from corpses to living people.
The WHO says in an online explainer on disease control during natural disasters:
“Contrary to common belief, there is no evidence that corpses pose a risk of epidemic disease after a natural disaster. Most agents do not survive long in the human body after death. Human remains only pose a substantial risk to health in a few special cases, such as deaths from cholera or haemorrhagic fevers.
“Workers who routinely handle corpses may however risk contracting tuberculosis, bloodborne viruses (eg hepatitis B and C and HIV) and gastrointestinal infections (e.g. cholera, E. coli, hepatitis A, rotavirus diarrhoea, salmonellosis, shigellosis and typhoid/paratyphoid fevers).”
Summer Johnson McGee, a health expert at the University of New Haven, told BuzzFeed:
“Anyone coming into contact with a COVID19 positive body, alive or dead, should be using personal protective equipment to prevent exposure. Autopsies and subsequent investigations present real risks for coroners to acquire COVID-19.”
— with a file from Reuters
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