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How long HIV virus survive in a Dead Human body
Apr 27, 1998

QUESTION #1: Respected Sir,

I want to know, How long HIV virus survive in a dead human body as soon as a person dies. How to handle the dead body which is infected with HIV? How to wrap? What sort of precaution should be taken in this regard? I am Amit, aged 24, male from New Delhi, India. I am volunteering for an NGO which is working in the field of HIV/AIDS. I am asking this question on behalf

of my NGO. Since the concentration of population in India particularly in New Delhi is very high and the cases of HIV/AIDS are rising sharply, still there is not enough information available. Answer the question in context with Indian Hygiene condition in particular.

QUESTION #2: Dr. Rick, I watched "60 Minutes" the other night about the Pathologist who contracted HIV during a brain autopsy. He sliced his thumb with a scalpel, which caused the transfer of the virus from the dead body to his. I have two questions. 1. If the body being autopsied was dead, why wouldn't the HIV virus die as well? 2. The Pathologist mentioned that he considrered amputating his thumb immediately, would this have prevented the virus from entering the rest of his body?

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Hi. Thank you for your questions.

When a person dies, HIV will not "die" immediately after death. This is because there is a large quantity of blood in the body, and it takes time for the conditions inside the body to change to an unlivable environment for the virus. Death is more of a process than an instantaneous event. The conditions in a dead body change slowly and gradually.

There have been several studies that have looked at how long HIV survives in a dead body. In unrefrigerated bodies, HIV generally survives up to 24-36 hours after death. However in refrigerated bodies, the survival time of HIV is significantly increased. In one study, in bodies that were stored at 6 degrees Celsius (42.8 degrees Fahrenheit), HIV was still viable for up to 6 days. In another study, bodies refrigerated at 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit) were found to have infectious HIV for up to 16.5 days.

Now, this does NOT mean that HIV will survive for up to 16 days outside the body! The environment inside a recently dead body is quite different from the environment outside the body. The specific environment inside a dead body changes gradually. The longer the body is dead, the more difficult it is for HIV to survive. Refrigeration slows down this process. Once the virus leaves the human body, it dies within minutes, since the virus is immediately going into an environment in which it cannot survive. Inside a dead body, the changes to the viruses environment occur gradually, which is why HIV will survive for longer periods of time. Refrigeration of a dead body further slows down this process.

As to the pathologist amputating this thumb, he did not do this, nor would it have significantly reduced his chances of infection. Blood moves very rapidly in the body. When HIV got into his bloodstream, it traveled throughout his body quickly, since blood travels through the body quickly. It would have been very unlikely for him to amputate his thumb in time to prevent infection.

As long as Universal Precautions (standard infection control guidelines) are followed, the risk of infection from a dead body is very low. If the body fluids of a recently dead body do not have a direct access to another persons bloodstream, there will not be a risk of infection. However, transmission can still occur during autopsies if a needlestick occurs, or if a person is cut by a knife (which is what happened in the case mentioned above). One way of further reducing the risk of infection during autopsies (in addition to Universal Precautions), is to delay doing the autopsy. The longer a person dead, the less the risk of transmission. However, since most bodies are quickly refrigerated after death, the risk of infection when performing an autopsy can still occur, even days after death.

When a person is embalmed after death, a combination of fixatives and disinfectants in embalming fluid, can inactivate the HIV virus, significantly reducing/eliminating, the risk of transmission.

In summary, the length of time that viable HIV can survive in a dead body varies, based on a number of different factors including the viral load of the person at the time of death, how long the person has been dead, whether the body has been refrigerated or not, etc.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).



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