A protest erupted in a municipality in Kerala's Kottayam district after local residents of Muttambalam city stopped the cremation of a COVID-19 victim on July 26. A native of Chungam, the deceased had succumbed to COVID-19 at the Kottayam Medical College Hospital on July 25. The entrance to the cremation was blocked by the residents. Despite clarification from healthcare workers, they refused to budge. The health authorities had informed that the mortal remains of the deceased will be cremated as per the COVID protocol.
Coronavirus could spread through the smoke and ashes during the last rites of a COVID-19 victim.
The claim is false.
As per the guidance released by World Health Organisation (WHO) on handling COVID-19 victims' bodies, except in cases of hemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Marburg) and cholera, dead bodies are generally not infectious. Only the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza, if handled improperly during an autopsy, can be infectious. Otherwise, cadavers do not transmit disease.
The WHO further adds any body fluids leaking from orifices in the cadaver must be contained. There is no need to disinfect the body before transferring it to the mortuary area.
People who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated. However, WHO also mentioned that 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).
West Bengal Govt's Advisory
Mamata Banerjee administration in Bengal had issued advisory following instances of protests by residents living in the vicinity of cremation grounds.
The Bengal health department advisory quoted from the World Health Organisation guidance and the Union health ministry guidelines and highlighted that there was no evidence of people becoming infected from exposure to bodies of persons who die from COVID-19.
The advisory noted that the main driver of transmission of COVID-19 is droplets.
"Temperature generated during burning of bodies is 800-1,000 degree celsius, under which, in no condition, can the virus remain viable," it said.
It added that there was no evidence either that the smoke generated from the pyre can cause COVID-19.
"Hence, it is clarified that if the protocol prescribed for transportation and disposal of dead bodies of Covid-19 positive persons is followed, there is no risk of any coronavirus infection spreading from the dead body as a result of cremation," the notice said.
Dr Shahid Jameel, a virologist and the Chief Executive Officer of the Wellcome Trust-DBT India Alliance, explained that a dead body can be infectious only if the body still has fluids, which can transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
"A dead body still has body fluids, still has saliva, and the virus is really there. It's not the body per se, but secretions that are a source of infections. And therefore, bodies of COVID-19 victims should either be buried or cremated with care," he was quoted as saying.
Rubbishing fears over the coronavirus spreading due to smoke from crematoriums, Dr Shahid said that "There are studies to show that the virus is destroyed in 70 degrees in one minute. When you are burning a body, that decimates the body immediately."
The police filed a case against the local BJP councillor and others under section 269 of the Indian Penal Code (Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life).
The BJP councillor has been blamed for instigating the residents.
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