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Call for establishment of disaster victim identification unit

Since Pakistan has so far not established any disaster victim identification (DVI) unit, heirs of disaster victims face numerous problems, just as did the near and dear ones of people who died in the recent air crash near Havelian, according to Dr Humayun Taimoor Baig, an expert who identified at least 14 bodies, including those of Junaid Jamshed, his wife and pilots of the PIA aircraft.

Dr Baig is perhaps the country’s only qualified forensic odontologist. He obtained a degree in forensic odontology from an institution in the United Kingdom.

Hailing from Gujrat, he is currently working for the Punjab health department’s medico-legal wing in Lahore as a forensic odontologist.

Pakistan has seen several incidents in recent years in which difficulties arose in identification of bodies

He has worked for the DVI unit in Britain and is member of a number of international forensic odontology wor­king groups, including that of the Interpol.

Dr Baig was assigned the task of dental identification of victims of the PK-661 flight two days after the crash on the request of the federal government. A temporary mortuary was set up at a cold storage in Rawat, near Rawalpindi, where the bodies were kept. All the identification operations were conducted there.

“On the first day, our team proceeded to identify three bodies, including that of [Mr Jamshed’s wife] Neha Jamshed and pilot Saleh Janjua through dental identification, but Junaid’s body was identified four days later, after the DNA test failed to identify his body,” Dr Baig said. The dental identification process should have started soon after the bodies had been retrieved from the crash site.

According to Interpol’s Disaster Victim Identification Guidelines, there are three primary scientific ways of identifying the bodies — through fingerprints, odontology and DNA tests.

“All these methods are stand-alone in nature, meaning when identified by one, there is no need to perform the other methods. We have a rather good database of fingerprints but in air crashes or high-temperature disasters and in water-based disasters the utility of the biometrics is low as fingerprints either get burnt or dissolved in water,” he said.

Dr Baig said that DNA testing was an accurate method of identification but time-consuming, delicate and expensive. The poor facilities and capabilities for DNA testing across Pakistan rather served to prolong the agony of the aggrieved relatives.

Any contamination during collection of DNA samples might lead to wrong findings or no findings at all, he said.

Forensic odontology had a primary role in DVI operations and its utility was established in major disasters of recent times like the Boxing Day tsunami and Bali bombings, Dr Baig said.

“It is a cheap, quick and authentic method for identifying the remains, regardless of whether the dental record of a victim is available or not,” he said.

Pakistan has faced several disasters in recent years where the issue of identification of bodies also surfaced. Due to lack of awareness and inadequate forensic facilities, the heirs of the crashes involving Airblue and Bhoja Air questioned the identification process.

Dr Baig said a DVI unit should be set up in the country as soon as possible to mitigate the agony and misery of the relatives of disasters. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) should take the much-needed steps in this regard.

Meanwhile, a source in the NDMA said that during the dental identification process of bodies, CCTV footage from the Chitral airport was sought so that the process could be completed to the satisfaction of all those involved. But it was found that there was no video recording facility at the airport.

Source: Dawn

Byline: Waseem Ashraf

December 19, 2016

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