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While priority is usually food, clothing, housing and health care for survivors, emotional and psycho-social recovery is also important in the recovery process. This is why an important part of the rehabilitation process is to ensure the proper management and identification of human remains.

There are several reasons why it is important to identify the dead. It brings closure for relatives of a missing person and ensure proper burial. It’s necessary for legal reasons such as the payment of insurance and other benefits to the family of the deceased or for the re-marriage of the surviving spouse. The identity of the deceased may also be required as part of a forensic investigation, that is, the analysis of scientific evidence during the course of an investigation.

Simply stated, the identification of the dead is not for the sake of the dead alone, but for the sake of the living.

Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) can assist in providing closure to those left behind. It is very difficult because of the rapid decomposition of human bodies; in most cases, most bodies are buried without proper identification.

DVI is a complex task. Visual identification of the recovered remains may be resorted to when the body is relatively intact and other distinguishing features such as presence of tattoo and medical devices – for example, pacemakers, metal braces and others are present.

Otherwise, three main primary means for identification are used: fingerprint analysis, dental examination and DNA typing. Fingerprint analysis is useful when bodies are not severely decomposed. Dental examination can be carried out when the teeth and jaws are available. However, fingerprint and dental records taken ante-mortem, or “prior to death”, should be available for comparison with the same date obtained from recovered remains.

One major step in DVI is the establishment of a Missing Persons Database that will serve as the repository of all ante-mortem information and material about the missing persons.

The third technology, DNA profiling, is extremely useful if identification via visual inspection, fingerprint analysis and dental examination are no longer feasible. A DNA profile of the missing person, obtained from the personal effects or samples that were stored prior to death may be compared directly to the DNA profile generated from a recovered human remain.

Unlike fingerprint and dental analyses, DNA profiling may still be used in the absence of ante-mortem data, if there are relatives who are able to provide reference samples needed for matching purposes via kinship analysis.

The DNA Analysis Laboratory, which opened at 1997 at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Natural Sciences Research Institute, has advocated for the routine use of forensic DNA technology in criminal investigation, mass disaster victim identification, and filial/kinship analysis.

It is currently validating procedures that will form the basis for the development of protocols on sample collection, sample handling and DNA analysis for DVI that would complement the results of earlier technologies. It is focused on determining the effect of different factors on DNA-based human identification, such as variable environmental conditions and different sample types.

The objective is to develop efficient systems for analyzing degraded human remains for successful DNA testing. This will lead to the establishment of a scientific framework for forensic DNA typing technology in the Philippines.

The inclusion of DNA typing in DVI is a major step towards increasing the chances of identifying the dead and providing closure to those left behind.

Gayvelline C. Calacal and Dame Loveliness T. Apaga
University of the Philippines Diliman