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Forensic Odontology May Play Key Role in Identifying Typhoon Yolanda Victims

Sunday 8, February, 2014 7:00 PM EST

Last month another group of  shallow mass graves were prepared by the Philippine government to be used as temporary interment for approximately 1,400 unidentified victims of Typhoon Yolanda.  The cadavers had previously been individually entombed in body bags and stored in an open field, some for longer than 60 days. Refrigerated facilities to store the remains  are not an option in the Philippines at this time due to massive infrastructure disruption.

As haphazard as the term mass grave sounds, the dry soil will serve to protect the severely decomposed bodies from further exposure. The  40 foot long temporary graves are shallow by design, about 4 feet, so that in the future one body at a time may be excavated without unnecessarily disrupting the others.

The World Health Organization (WHO) worked with Chief Inspector Edwin Zata, 47, who leads the Philippine special police forensics team Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO) to collect DNA from 818 cadavers.  Following the DNA extraction, each body was re-bagged into a new body bag, tagged and numbered. The 1,400 deceased were organized into groups of approximately 40 per grave and placed in a single row by hand, not machine. The remains of children were buried separately from the adults and males were separated from females.  If a gender could not be assessed, the bodies in that group were formed into their own group and they were buried together using the same protocols.

As each cadaver was positioned into its temporary grave, the number identification was recorded and the position in the grave was diagrammed by a forensic technician.  If a positive DNA match is eventually made, the body may be recovered from its location and released to the family for burial.

A police forensic-team member draws up a diagram showing the location of bodies
A police forensic-team member draws up a diagram showing the location of bodies

The Philippine government is utilizing word of mouth, newspapers, radio, T.V, internet and a government website, to assure citizens that the opportunity to honor their loved ones with a proper burial is going to happen, in time.  More than fifty four hundred bodies out of  6,201 recovered still need to be accurately identified. The Philippine government has created a website devoted to the identification of Yolanda victims.  There are 779 bodies identified as of this writing.  In addition to the names of the deceased, the date of recovery is provided as well as the suspected or affirmed manner of death.

New storms like tropical depression Agaton and tropical storm Basyang recently disturbed southern and central portions of the Philippine islands between January 17th and the 31st.  Both systems brought heavy rains and damage and in Cebu there was a mass evacuation of 18,000 citizens. Disasters keep piling on and are very taxing on a government whose resources are already stretched thin.  These disruptions are major set backs in the identification process of Yolanda victims.

It should be noted that the Philippine government has succeeded in taking steps to streamline the identification process. Initially, local law enforcement were following body recovery protocols developed by Interpol (the International Police Agency), called (DVI) Disaster Victim Identification.  However, many DVI protocols are more in line with crime investigations, when the manner of death is in question. In the case of natural disasters like a typhoon, the additional steps seem burdensome and place more pressure on local law enforcement than necessary.

Due to the overwhelming number of bodies recovered since November 2013, (6201 to date) and still being discovered daily, the World Health Organization (WHO) has worked with the Philippine Department of Justice and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to implement an abbreviated DVI method. The abbreviated method allows SOCO to concentrate on identification, not so much manner of death. Accelerating the identification process is something that the majority of frustrated Filipinos have been demanding from their government.

Working within the abbreviated guidelines, DNA is collected whenever possible. Fingerprints are collected and facial features are photographed when possible. Photos of teeth are collected. Other notes and photos are cataloged regarding gender, hair color, clothing, jewelry, scars, tattoos, footwear, fingernail polish, hair clips and anything else the forensic technicians believe would be helpful for loved ones to identify the missing. The body is then measured and placed in a cadaver bag.

Identifying victims of Typhoon Yolanda is clearly an ongoing process.  Most bodies recovered in the first week following the super storm were not properly processed and cataloged before they were buried in the first of many mass graves.  Since those early days, most mass graves are well organized, with diagrams identifying the approximate location of each numbered cadaver and as much information was collection from the physical appearance of the bodies as possible before burial.

As time passes, the majority of the bodies will likely be identified through DNA as well as the detailed descriptions cataloged by SOCO and others. When the number of unidentified victims becomes more manageable, it is probable that Forensic Odontologists (Dentists) will be called in to collect DNA and take dental impressions.

Dental identification plays a major role in identifying victims of catastrophic events. In this case, most of the bodies recovered after Typhoon Yolanda in November of last year are decomposed beyond recognition. The bodies were not able to be stored properly and local authorities were overwhelmed taking care of the needs of the survivors.

In cases where DNA could not be collected from tissue or bone by SOCO and others, Forensic Odontologists may extract DNA from inside the bone of a molar or other dense tooth.   Such procedures are highly successful.  Several years ago man in Florida was convicted after his missing wife’s DNA was extracted from a single tooth found in his fire pit.  Law enforcement may also ask the odontologist to collect dental impressions and x-rays from the cadaver and compare them to known impressions and x-rays of those reported missing after Yolanda struck.

The Forensic Odontologist holds a basic DDS or DDM degree and also participates in forensic science course work, hands-on workshops and they train with experienced forensic odontologists.  In America, a DDS or DDM degree holder must pass the ABFO examination, American Board of Forensic Odontology, before they are cleared to practice forensic odontology.

Most forensic odontologists are dentists with a regular practice.  They are retained by law enforcement on an ‘on-call’ basis.  A forensic odontologist may also be retained as an expert witness by either a plainif or defendant in a court of law.

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Forensic Odontology – Typhoon Yolanda featured pic found here.