A mere 11 of the 289 identified Swedish victims from the tsunami disaster in Thailand are children 15 years or younger.
Only seven of these children have been identified by the forensic specialists in Phuket. The remaining four, all boys, were found early on by their fathers.
All 11 are included in the latest public Swedish list of missing and identified tsunami victims from Thailand published 17 March 2005.
So few kids found although more than half of the 544 missing and dead Swedes have been positively identified.
Over 96 percent of the identified Swedish citizens are born 1989 or earlier. The older they are, the higher is the rate of identification.
In the group of still missing Swedes, 255 persons, are 105 children.
Why is such a big portion of the missing Swedish children still unidentified?
“We are very dependent on dna to get information about the children and there have been problems with the dna-samples,” says Mr Stig Edqvist, head of the Swedish ID-Commission in Phuket and the current Deputy Chief of Staff at the international disaster victim identification center, DVI-Center, in Phuket.
“The combination of salt water, heat and bacteria has broken down dna in the samples. We have also seen inadequate handling and storing of samples.”
The small group of already identified Swedish children all had their identities established by other means than dna, for example fingerprints or dental records.
That method did only work in these few instances.
For the rest is dna matching the only safe bet.
The Chinese laboratory in Beijing that in an early stage volunteered to analyse samples from tsunami victims in Thailand, BGI, could only derive a handful of dna profiles although they got both teeth as well as leg tissue samples to work with.
“The dead were laid on their backs in the heat. This heat plus salt water did probably adversely affect tooth pulp as well,” says Stig Edqvist is one reason why BGI failed.
In order to advance the process have new reference samples been sent in March to genetics laboratories in Australia, England, South Korea and Sweden.
The Sweden bound samples were sent to the National Board of Forensic Medicine’s, RMV, forensic genetics department at Linköping University.
If that works well is RMV allowed to analyse up to 600 samples, following a Swedish government funding approval.
“All samples to Sweden were taken from bodies 148 centimeters long or shorter and that was done because we like to proceed with the children, even if it has been said we should not prioritise any category. It is difficult to make out from the bodies whether they are children or not. That is why we use body length,” explains Stig Edqvist.
How many Swedish children will eventually be identified?
“It is impossible to answer that question today. We will not know until we are done with all bodies.”
During March have the DVI teams begun to take larger and more comprehensive samples from all the remaining 2743 bodies in Phuket.
“These samples are taken from the thigh, registered, sealed and stored as they should be,” stresses Stig Edqvist.
Through these new measures, he hopes the identification process of the remaining bodies will work better than it has up to now.
“And my personal opinion is still that all bodies we have found, which we have family dna and other data from relatives to match with, will be identified.”
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The analysis of the ten reference samples sent to Sweden from Phuket has just been completed. What is the outcome?
”Everything from great to quite bad,” says Ms Gunilla Holmlund, deputy head at the National Board of Forensic Medicine’s forensic genetics department at Linköping University to ScandAsia. “Now we will send the results and a letter with recommendations to Phuket.”
The varied outcome was expected, she adds. The analysis of the ten reference samples has yielded valuable knowledge how the sampling should be done in the future.
“We will in the letter issue recommendations how problems with the samples can be solved. The dna analysis is not a problem as long as we get the right samples to work with.”
Do you believe that quality problems we have experienced with samples so far can be sorted out and the identification process by dna matching can get started in earnest?
“Based on the samples we got now I believe that is the case.”
But it will be a long wait until dna from all bodies have been matched with corresponding information from family and relatives.
First must outcome and opinions from the analysis done at laboratories in the three other countries be collected.
After that must all involved agree how to proceed.
Then can data be entered into the system at the DVI-Center and readied for the matching procedure.