Death is a topic many people skirt around, especially if it comes in a traumatic manner. When it involves certain hostile diseases, such as the bubonic plague or HIV, people often experience fear and wonder how dead bodies and illnesses can impact their health.
Fortunately, modern medicine and studies at body farms eliminate the need to treat every corpse like a biohazard. However, there are still particular viruses capable of staying in your body after you die.
How long exactly do diseases stay in your body? It depends on the nature of the illness. Some, like mad cow disease, are the result of prions remaining in your system well beyond your lifespan. Others, like malaria, can be terrifying while in progress, but don't pose a threat once the person dies. Scientific studies provide us with essential answers regarding deadly illnesses and their staying power post-mortem.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: decades, possibly forever.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) can take many forms, but the one people are likely most familiar with is mad cow disease. Prions - infectious agents in the form of mutated proteins - are how CJD and its variants enter the brain. Those prions kill brain cells and make holes in the tissue.
In the 1950s in Papua New Guinea, there were several cases of similar prion-borne illnesses. Women and children died of a disease locally known as "kuru," and medical anthropologists traced it back to the funeral practice of cooking and eating the dead. The people believed it was more respectful to consume their deceased loved ones than to let worms and maggots do so.
Since CJD comes from prions (and is not a virus or bacterial infection), it can survive high temperatures through cooking and other methods typically used to eradicate a disease. This is why despite heating up the dead bodies, New Guineans still suffered from infections.
In the late '90s and early aughts, cases of mad cow disease started in England and spread globally, creating an alarmist mentality about consuming beef. However, consuming the muscle meat of an infected cow will not pass on the disease; it only transfers if a person eats the brain or nerve tissue.
A prion disease is always fatal. Scientists have yet to discover a way to kill the malignant proteins, even if the host is already deceased.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: officially unknown, but potentially forever.
In 1974 - shortly before the eradication of smallpox in 1980 - Dr. A.C. Mitra and his colleagues published a study in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization detailing how long the smallpox virus could survive in various parts of the body. While smallpox found in urine and the throat seemed to diminish rapidly, in the scabs of deceased victims the "quantum of the virus was found to have been unaffected by the passage of time."
Consequently, health professionals consider randomly discovered smallpox-infected bodies as biohazards. In 2011, construction workers stumbled across a buried body appearing to have the virus. They contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); the agency advised there was a low risk of contracting the deadly disease, but to still take precautions.
The live virus was never evident in a dead body, though researchers continue to look. It's likely frozen bodies could contain the live virus, especially since influenza can survive in freezing temperatures.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: up to a month.
HIV lives in the blood, sexual fluids, and breast milk of its host. Due to the large number of bodily fluids the virus can thrive in, it can live inside a dead body for up to 36 hours unrefrigerated, and as long as 16.5 days when refrigerated. It can also live in dried blood for at least a week if the temperature and conditions are right. If HIV-infected blood is in a syringe, it can also reportedly stay active for up to a month.
Still, unless someone sustains an injury while embalming an HIV-positive corpse, the risk a person runs of contracting the retrovirus from a cadaver is unlikely. Unembalmed, HIV-positive bodies do not pose any threat to anyone paying their respects or mourning the dead.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: four days to three weeks.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne illness mostly spreading through the use and sharing of unclean needles. Before blood screenings, it also transferred via blood transfusions.
Typically, the liver disease-causing virus can live up to three weeks on a surface at room temperature outside of the body. It is rare to contract the illness from a contaminated surface, but still not out of the realm of possibility.
Undertakers and morticians generally do not embalm or treat the body of someone infected with hepatitis C. By and large, morticians will not preserve the corpse in any manner, so viewing the deceased must happen quickly before the body starts to deteriorate.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: up to one week.
Ebola can survive for up to seven days after death. When an Ebola victim dies, the virus is all over their body - in bodily fluids such as saliva, mucus, feces, and blood - making it relatively easy to contract. Researchers note a corpse with Ebola needs the same management as a living person with the virus.
In regions like West Africa, where the cultural practice is to wash and dress the dead, the virus's staying power can quickly become an issue. Villagers in Sierra Leone recently came to terms with how they cannot safely handle loved ones' corpses and participate in their traditional mourning rituals.
Amount of time disease is active in the body after death: a couple of days.
While there are no concrete answers as to precisely how long the tuberculosis bacteria can live in a dead body, a national study in the US showed funeral home directors "had higher tuberculosis morbidity... and higher tuberculosis mortality" than the average American.
Oliver Morgan, the Director of Health Emergency Information and Risk Assessment for the World Health Organization, outlines why in his literature review, "Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters:"
This suggests that even when the chest cavity is not opened up, handling intact cadavers presents an increased risk of tuberculosis. Exposure may occur from gurgling at the nose and mouth of the cadaver due to fluid buildup in the chest cavity and putrefaction of tissues and organs. Also, residual air in the decreased's lungs may be exhaled when the body is moved.