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New toolkit equips death scene investigators for natural disasters, and weather events.

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CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) has released a new product titled Death Scene Investigation after Natural Disasters or other Weather-Related Events. This new toolkit provides guidance for death scene investigators about collecting data at death scenes during and after a natural disaster or weather-related event.

NCEH’s Health Studies Branch developed the toolkit because reviews of death certificates after several recent natural disasters showed widespread inconsistency in mortality data. For example, a death certificate may indicate a person’s death from drowning, but fail to note that the drowning was related to flooding during a hurricane. CDC found considerable disparities among the final number of deaths recorded by various agencies for the same federally-declared disaster. This was the case for Hurricane Ike in 2008, the southeastern tornado outbreak in 2011, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

“To help with this information gap, CDC has developed a new toolkit designed to equip death scene investigators with guidance and tools to document deaths following a disaster,” said Anindita Issa, MD, an Epidemic Intelligence (EIS) Officer with The Health Studies Branch in CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

Anindita Issa, M.D., an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer
Anindita Issa, M.D., an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer

Issa, who helped author the toolkit, is trained as a forensic pathologist at Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office in Atlanta, Georgia. The toolkit’s purpose is to help improve the level of detail included in reports of disaster-related deaths, with the goal of improving CDC’s disaster-related mortality surveillance and supporting evidence-based public health intervention during disaster response.

“Disaster-attributed deaths often lack disaster-identifying terminology in the death certificates,” Issa explained. Accurate reporting calls for including terms such as “storm surge,” “hurricane,” “tornado,” or “flood.” Forms and checklists in the new toolkit make identifying and documenting event-specific terms easy to find and record.

A workgroup of forensic professionals, including death scene investigators, collaborated with CDC and NORC at University of Chicago to develop this toolkit.

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