The World Health Organization and health officials in the northern Nigerian state of Kano have launched a probe into reports of increases in unusual deaths, state Gov. Abdullahi Ganduje told CNN.
A team of experts is gathering hospital records and interviewing families of those who died at home to determine the actual cause of death.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has also ordered a 14-day lockdown in Kano following the reported spike in deaths.
Buhari said the government will deploy all “human, material and technical” assistance to contain the coronavirus in the state, and a team has been sent to investigate.
Preliminary investigations by the state ministry of health suggest that the increase in mortality was not unusual compared to other years, Ganduje said.
Still, officials are interviewing cemetery workers, checking hospital records and asking residents about family members who died at home, the governor said.
State officials had earlier said the “mysterious deaths” were not Covid-related and attributed the deaths to meningitis, diabetes, hypertension, and other illnesses, even though no autopsies have not been done.
Kano isn’t the only place to see an increase in deaths.
In the US, deaths began to spike as Covid-19 started to spread.
A Yale School of Public Health team, using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, found about 15,000 excess deaths from March 1 to April 4. During the same time, states reported 8,000 deaths from Covid-19.
A spike in deaths
A gravedigger, Kabiru Nasidi Sabon-Sara, who has worked at the Dandolo Cemetery in Kano city for over 30 years, told CNN funerals carried out at the graveyard have doubled.
Sabon-Sara said he began noticing the spike in deaths a day before Ramadan, and numbers have continued to rise since state authorities imposed a lockdown to curb a spread of the virus.
“In Dandolo we get between 35 to 40 burials, and it used to be less than that, between 13 to 15 at most in a day,” Sabon-Sara said.
He said one of the diggers who joined a funeral procession died, and some other diggers have been ill.
“We don’t have anything to protect ourselves. Our colleagues are falling sick. We need assistance from the government,” Sabon-Sara told CNN.
Health workers faced a challenge in determining whether the deaths were coronavirus-related: the state’s testing laboratory was not working at the time, Ganduje said. That made it difficult for health workers to collect samples for testing.
Older patients affected
Dr. Abubabar Nagoma, president of the Kano association of resident doctors who works at the government-owned Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, said there has been a rise in deaths among elderly patients in the state in recent weeks.
He said while some had underlying illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and previous strokes, they also had respiratory problems – increasing concerns that they might have been coronavirus-related deaths.
“We’re raising the high index of suspicion because of the age of some of the patients that died and the symptoms they experienced,” Nagoma told CNN.
“We can’t say the deaths are unconnected to the pandemic, and we can’t say for sure it’s Covid-19.”
Dr. Nura Abubakar of Kano’s Medical Association said the lack of data about the situation during a pandemic has sparked speculation. Only a thorough probe could help put an end to it, Abubakar said.
“I know a woman who had breast cancer that died over the weekend,” Abubakar said. “We can say she succumbed to the illness, and we can’t say she died of Covid-19 because she was not tested for the virus.”
Kano, Nigeria’s largest northern city, has recorded 174 coronavirus cases and three deaths, according to Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control. According to a local media report, the state’s sole testing center was forced to close last week after workers tested positive.
The NCDC announced Tuesday that it had reopened the lab and planned to set up another testing center, but the delay and news of people dying had sparked concerns that the virus was spreading undetected in the state.
The unconfirmed “mysterious deaths” have caused some apprehension among residents who are demanding answers, Maulid Warfa, head of the UNICEF office in Kano told CNN.
Warfa said Kano had been battling other public health concerns, including high infant and maternal death rates, before the pandemic and it lacked the capacity to carry out enough tests to give a true picture of the situation.
“Kano only got its first laboratory about two weeks ago, and immediately that testing started, the numbers started jumping,” he said.
Journalist Aliyu Dahiru and CNN’s Brent Swails and Maggie Fox contributed to the story.