Exposure to infections

Autopsy examination may require examination of undocumented drug abusers and persons with promiscuous sexual behavior. Similarly, the infective load may not be pre-determined. This greatly increases the risk of exposure of autopsy personnel. One school of thought maintains that all autopsies should be carried out with total precautions against all infective risks. However, this is almost impossible to achieve and also does not alleviate the issues with sending infected material to other laboratories.

A more commonly practiced protocol is to screen all cases for HIV and hepatitis. The results can often be obtained early enough, in a few hours; to assist in determining the level of protection required or even if the autopsy is to be withheld, due to unjustifiable risks.

A positive result should ensure that the autopsy is carried out with additional
precautions and protection as well as decreased accessibility to non-essential personnel. In addition, infective material that are sent to laboratories should be labeled as such.

For autopsy personnel, Hepatitis is more of a risk than HIV infection. The infective period for corpses infected with HIV is variable.

  • Cao et al. recovered infectious virus from liquid blood held at room temperature for 2 months.
  • Bankowski et al. found 51 per cent of virus survived in plasma and monocyte from cadavers up to 21 hours after death. 
  • Other series found survival in corpses from 18 hours to 11 days after death. 
  • Virus has been recovered from the spleen up to 14 days after death.
  • Refrigeration seems to make little difference to viability. Douceron et al. (1993) obtained viable virus up to 16 days after death in refrigerated bodies.
  • Virus in high concentrations have been found to remain viable for as long as 3 weeks. 

Other infective risks to autopsy personnel and other individuals handling body and body fluids after death include tuberculosis, anthrax, plague, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease etc.