Covid-19 deaths in Africa: prospective systematic postmortem surveillance study

BMJ. 2021 Feb 17;372:n334. doi: 10.1136/bmj.n334.


Objective: To directly measure the fatal impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (covid-19) in an urban African population.

Design: Prospective systematic postmortem surveillance study.

Setting: Zambia's largest tertiary care referral hospital.

Participants: Deceased people of all ages at the University Teaching Hospital morgue in Lusaka, Zambia, enrolled within 48 hours of death.

Main outcome measure: Postmortem nasopharyngeal swabs were tested via reverse transcriptase quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Deaths were stratified by covis-19 status, location, age, sex, and underlying risk factors.

Results: 372 participants were enrolled between June and September 2020; PCR results were available for 364 (97.8%). SARS-CoV-2 was detected in 58/364 (15.9%) according to the recommended cycle threshold value of <40 and in 70/364 (19.2%) when expanded to any level of PCR detection. The median age at death among people with a positive test for SARS-CoV-2 was 48 (interquartile range 36-72) years, and 69% (n=48) were male. Most deaths in people with covid-19 (51/70; 73%) occurred in the community; none had been tested for SARS-CoV-2 before death. Among the 19/70 people who died in hospital, six were tested before death. Among the 52/70 people with data on symptoms, 44/52 had typical symptoms of covid-19 (cough, fever, shortness of breath), of whom only five were tested before death. Covid-19 was identified in seven children, only one of whom had been tested before death. The proportion of deaths with covid-19 increased with age, but 76% (n=53) of people who died were aged under 60 years. The five most common comorbidities among people who died with covid-19 were tuberculosis (22; 31%), hypertension (19; 27%), HIV/AIDS (16; 23%), alcohol misuse (12; 17%), and diabetes (9; 13%).

Conclusions: Contrary to expectations, deaths with covid-19 were common in Lusaka. Most occurred in the community, where testing capacity is lacking. However, few people who died at facilities were tested, despite presenting with typical symptoms of covid-19. Therefore, cases of covid-19 were under-reported because testing was rarely done not because covid-19 was rare. If these data are generalizable, the impact of covid-19 in Africa has been vastly underestimated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Autopsy
  • COVID-19 / diagnosis
  • COVID-19 / mortality*
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • COVID-19 Nucleic Acid Testing / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nasopharynx / virology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification*
  • Sex Factors
  • Urban Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Zambia / epidemiology