The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) is assisting in efforts to identify victims of Hurricane Katrina, analyzing bone samples in order to obtain DNA profiles for identification of the bodies.Under an agreement between ICMP and the State of Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, ICMP will test an estimated 260 to 350 bone samples to assist in identification of victims of the August hurricane, which swept across the south eastern United States, severely damaging the New Orleans area and leaving some 1,400 persons confirmed dead.
The DNA analysis is being carried out at the ICMP DNA laboratories in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ICMP was originally established in 1996 to assist in the identification of persons missing as a result of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. It is now also working with the authorities in Iraq on finding ways to address the missing persons issue there and, as a humanitarian measure, is helping to identify victims of last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami.
ICMP developed the system of DNA-led identifications on a mass scale in order to identify thousands of missing in the former Yugoslavia. ICMP was asked to assist in identification of tsunami victims because of its expertise in analyzing bones to obtain DNA profiles.
Obtaining DNA profiles from hard tissue samples – bones and teeth – is technically much more challenging than from sources such as blood and saliva. During its more than five years of working with skeletal remains found in mass graves across the former Yugoslavia, ICMP has developed specialized methods of obtaining DNA profiles from hard tissue samples. When the State of Louisiana sent test bone samples from Katrina victims to DNA laboratories in November, ICMP achieved a 100 per cent success rate in obtaining DNA profiles from them.
ICMP Chairman James Kimsey, speaking from Washington D.C., points out that the ICMP DNA scientists “Normally work with bones from victims of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, many of which have been buried in grave sites for more than ten years, making it even more complicated to obtain DNA profiles from them. Hurricane Katrina is a relatively recent disaster, and in this case the quantity of DNA is much higher than in older bones, so we are expecting to have a success rate of 100 per cent or close to that with the Katrina victim samples.”
Unlike tsunami cases and those in the former Yugoslavia, where ICMP also matches bone DNA profiles with family members of the missing, ICMP’s involvement in Katrina victim identification efforts will be limited to the profiling of bone samples for DNA. The DNA profiles will be returned to the Louisiana authorities for matching with family members’ DNA profiles there.