A study of corpses in a Zambian mortuary suggests that deaths from Covid-19 in the country, and by extension possibly elsewhere in Africa, have routinely been under-counted, disputing the view that the continent is suffering the worst consequences of the pandemic. has avoided.
According to official data, just over 90,000 people have died in Africa from Covid-19, representing about 4 percent of the global death toll on a continent that makes up 17 percent of the world’s population.
Several explanations have been put forward for Covid’s seemingly low impact, including the continent’s youthful population, its relative isolation and swift action to contain the pandemic by health authorities.
However, research from the Boston University School of Public Health, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, offers an alternative thesis: that many Covid deaths are simply unrecorded.
Researchers, who took nose and throat swabs from the bodies of recently deceased people in the morgue of University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, found a much higher incidence of Covid-19 than expected. Of the 364 bodies tested, Covid-19 was detected in 70.
Lawrence Mwananyanda, who led the study, said it cast doubt on the view that Covid-19 had somehow skipped Africa. “If our data is generalizable, the impact of Covid-19 in Africa is hugely underestimated,” the paper’s authors wrote.
While it was possible that the first wave was relatively well contained, a second wave turned out to be more deadly. “Everyone in Lusaka now knows someone who has died of Covid or who is in hospital with Covid,” he said.
Dr. Mwananyanda estimated that the official Covid-19 death toll of 723 in Zambia could underestimate the true level by as much as ten times, a pattern he says can be repeated in many African countries where Covid-19 tests are limited and the cause – or even fact – of death is routinely not recorded.
The World Health Organization said last week that a new variant of Covid-19 first discovered in South Africa was causing a second wave of infections across much of the continent. In the four weeks to January 25, infections across the region have risen 50 percent to 175,000 compared to the previous four weeks, with deaths doubling in 10 countries, mainly in the south and north of the continent.
In addition to the new variant, which has been found in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, lockdowns had eased in much of Africa and public fatigue was caused by Covid-19 countermeasures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing. , started, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Many African countries have almost certainly under-counted the actual number of Covid-19 deaths, added Dr. Moeti adds.
Dr. Faisal Shuaib, general director of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency in Nigeria, said the findings of the study in Zambia sounded true in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. “There are many communities where autopsies are not performed, so we don’t have complete data on causes of death,” he said. “So yes, we may not know how many people die from Covid.”
Dr. However, Shuaib warned that it was important to wait for the research in Zambia to be thoroughly peer reviewed before drawing any conclusions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, outside of South Africa, few African hospitals were inundated with Covid-19 patients last year.
In the mortuary study in Zambia, conducted between June and September last year, the median age of death of those who tested positive for Covid-19 was 48, much younger than in developed countries. Seven were children, including a baby just a few months old.
“Oral autopsies” conducted by talking to family members found that many of the 70 deceased showed Covid-like symptoms, including coughing and shortness of breath, in addition to a positive test on their post-mortem Pap smear. Dr. However, Mwananyanda admitted that it was impossible to be sure that Covid-19 was the cause of death.
Of the 70 patients, only 19 were hospitalized. The remaining 51 had died in the community where covid-19 tests were almost non-existent, he said.