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‘Lung disease, not accidents, behind most roadside deaths’

Study on unclaimed bodies highlights lack of shelter homes for homeless.

Written by Pritha Chatterjee | New Delhi | Published: August 4, 2014 2:33:42 am

A majority of the unidentified bodies brought to AIIMS between 2006 and 2012 died of natural causes, most dying of lung diseases on roadsides during winter, a study shows.

Over 1,300 unclaimed bodies were brought to the hospital during that period and autopsies were performed on them for identification. That is 11 per cent of the total bodies brought to AIIMS.

The study on the medico-legal problem of unclaimed bodies, published in the International Medico Legal journal, found that most of the bodies brought to the hospital were of males, with nearly 67 per cent found near roadsides, compared to 8.1 per cent found on railway tracks and stations.

Over 800 men – mostly in the 21-40 age group – died of natural causes compared to 61 women, and 402 men died of unnatural causes compared to 53 women.

Doctors said the staggering number of roadside deaths highlights the “lack of shelter homes” in the city, especially during winter. “The numbers, about 150-200 annually, show the huge problem that mortality among the homeless is becoming in the capital. Most died of lung diseases. We had over 500 pneumonia cases, nearly 200 chronic lung disease cases and some cases of cardiovascular diseases,” Dr Chittaranjan Behera, assistant professor in forensic medicine and co-author of the study, said.

Dr Sudhir Gupta, head of forensic medicine department who also co-authored the study, said this was probably because the homeless get exposed to pollutants in high quantities, cannot afford medication and were not covered by government health schemes. Starvation, the authors said, also exacerbates natural causes like lung diseases due to low immunity.

Winter saw a spike in natural deaths: 494 cases compared to 381 in summer. “The incidence as well as morbidity of acute pneumonia and lung diseases is increased manifold during winter. This and a shortage of night shelters could be contributing to the mortality trends,” Dr Behera said.

According to the study, many homeless people are known to indulge in substance abuse and engage in high-risk sexual behaviour. “This predisposes them to acquire HIV infection. Secondary immunodeficiency along with cigarette/bidi smoking may account for high incidence of both acute and chronic lung diseases,” the authors note in the study.

Accident deaths were identified as the second-most common cause of mortality, at 331 deaths. According to inquest records, road traffic accidents leading to head injuries and haemorrhagic shock comprised the majority of such cases.

“Most roadside dwellers sleep on pavements and are at a high risk of road traffic accidents. We saw about 150 head injuries and 160 haemorrhagic shocks from road accidents. These numbers tell the need for night shelters in the city,” Dr Behera said.
Doctors have suggested preparing DNA profiles of homeless people to help in identification in case of death.

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