New guideline on how to safely bury victims of the African Ebola outbreak should slow the transmission of the deadly virus disease as doctors and medical workers work to halt the West African epidemic, the World Health Organization says.
The new protocols, released from the organization's Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters, are considered important because Ebola victims are at the highest infectious level at the time of their death, WHO Ebola expert Pierre Formenty said.
Because of that, traditional burial practices in which family members are in contact with or close proximity to the deceased have resulted in around 20 percent of the new infections in the most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, he said.
Burials in which members of the victim's family or community take part in religious customs that involve the direct touching or washing of the body increase infection risks, as does distribution of personal property of the loved one to family members, property that may carry the virus, WHO said.
The 17-page protocol was prepared in consultation with both medical groups and faith-based organizations, WHO officials explained, and recommends burial procedures that can create a safe environment while still respecting cultural sensitivities of both Christians and Muslims.
Religious leaders in affected countries were consulted to create acceptable definitions of what is considered "dignified burial" in both the Christian and Muslim context, they said.
Specific instructions for burials for both faiths encourage the participation of family and local clerics in planning and carrying out the burials.
"We are becoming known for 'dead body management,' but we do not 'manage' dead bodies," says Elhadj As Sy of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which helped create the new protocols.
"We safely, respectfully and in a dignified manner, accompany our deceased fellow human beings and help to prepare them, in accordance with their cultures, for their last resting places," he says.
Around 140 teams have been mobilized in the most affected countries to help with burials in accordance with the new protocols, WHO said this week, but that it only about a third of the number of teams it needs.
A target of Dec. 1 has been set for ensuring at least 70 percent of Ebola burials in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are conducted safely, the organization said.
As the new protocols go into effect, WHO will be gathering feedback from communities, religious leaders and teams involved in managing the burials to update and improve them, officials said.