Bangladesh confirms first coronavirus death

Actual situation unknown as testing facilities limited: public health experts

Manzur H Maswood | Published: 16:01, Mar 18,2020 | Updated: 01:16, Mar 19,2020


Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research director Meerjady Sabrina Flora speaks at a press conference at the institute in Dhaka on Wednesday.-- video grab

Bangladesh on Wednesday confirmed the first death from COVID-19 as the number of confirmed coronavirus patients rose to 14 amid the testing of a limited number of suspected patients.

‘It’s a sad day for us that the first COVID-19 patient died in our country today,’ said Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research director Meerjady Sabrina Flora at the agency’s daily press conference.

The 70-year-old man, who was also suffering from pulmonary diseases, diabetes and hypertension, was diagnosed to be a COVID-19 patient on Tuesday and died on Wednesday while under treatment at a hospital intensive care unit, she said.

The man had come in contract with a person having foreign travel history, she added.

Four more COVID-19 patients were also detected on Wednesday, Meerjady said, adding that three of them were male who had recently returned from Italy and Kuwait while the other was a female family member of a COVID-19 patient identified earlier.

‘They were tested positive while in quarantine,’ she said.

Bangladesh on March 8 confirmed its first three COVID-19 cases and with the new four infected the number of coronavirus patients in the country has risen to 14 after the disease broke out in China in December, now turning Europe as its new epicentre.

COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc globally as the death toll from the new deadly disease has crossed 8,000 and infected over two lakh so far, forcing many countries to lock down their cities and close their borders.

The World Health Organisation has declared the spread of the coronavirus as a pandemic.

In Bangladesh, of the 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far, three have been released after they recovered and 10 are in hospitals.

Among those hospitalised, four are in a critical condition as they have comorbidity like diabetes, hypertension and a history of strokes, Meerjady said.

On Wednesday 16 other suspected COVID-19 patients were taken in isolation while 42 were put in institutional quarantine, she said.

The IEDCR director revealed the first COVID-19 death at a time when people seemed still uncertain about the actual risk of the coronavirus infection in the country.

General people and public health experts alleged that the government was either covering up the actual picture or it did not have a reasonable assessment of the risks.

They also suspected that the novel virus had already spread to communities while tests were being conducted on few people.

Three noted health rights activists on Wednesday criticised the government, saying that it was indulging in tall talk without studying the risks of the virus and instead of preparing hospitals and training healthcare providers.

‘The government has showed utter irresponsibility in taking preventive measures, preparing hospitals and training doctors,’ wrote Bangladesh Medical Association’s former president Rashid-e-Mahbub, Janaswasthya Sangram Parishad convener Faizul Hakim and Shasthya Andolan joint convener Farida Akhter in a joint statement.

The COVID-19 tests are being carried out at the IEDCR alone in its central lab.

The tests are limited to people who have symptoms  of the infection after coming from abroad and their family members with symptoms like fever, coughing, sneezing and breathing difficulty.

The IEDCR so far tested only 341 people including 49 in past 24 hours, though over 6 lakh people entered Bangladesh since January 21.

‘We’ve tested 341 people so far with no pending samples. We test all the samples by the end of the day they are collected,’ said IEDCR principal scientific officer ASM Alamgir.

But people having no foreign travel history but carrying symptoms of the coronavirus infection are not being tested, he said.

BRAC suspects that the COVID-19 virus has already spread to communities in the country, it said on Wednesday.

Talking to journalists at the BRAC Centre, the NGO’s executive director Asif Saleh came up with their suspicion.

But Meerjady, the government spokesperson about the COVID-19 situation in the country, claimed that the coronavirus were yet to spread to communities.

She asserted that community transmission was not established by facts yet.

‘Our epidemiological surveillance is not saying that the coronavirus has spread to communities,’ she said.

Meerjady said that they were testing pneumonia patients from different communities and so far found no COVID-19 patients among them.

On Tuesday, she said that they tested some 20 people from communities but did not respond to a question if testing such a small number of people was enough to draw a conclusion that the coronavirus did not spread to communities.

‘We did not test all those having fever, cough, sneezing and breathing difficulty as people without the COVID-19 infection also have these symptoms,’ she said, adding, ‘We are testing those who have foreign travel history and their family members carrying these symptoms.’

Asked about why the tests facilities were still limited to the IEDCR, she said that the government had already selected a few other labs having biosafety measures.

The testing would be decentralised within a week, she added.

BRAC executive director Asif Saleh called upon the authorities to decentralise the COVID-19 testing facilities across the country to deal with the situation more efficiently.

‘Currently, the IEDCR is the sole authority to test the coronavirus infection. Considering the huge number of service seekers, the government may decentralise the facilities to other hospitals across the country along with necessary kits to help provide identification and treatment services,’ he said.

A man having coronavirus symptoms told New Age that the IEDCR had refused to conduct tests on him as, an official of the agency said, there were thousands of pending samples to be tested and the IEDCR was not capable of taking new samples.

When asked, IEDCR principal scientific officer ASM Alamgir said that the information was not correct.

He said that they did have no pending samples as they tested all the samples collected each day.

‘We test all the samples by the end of the day we collect them,’ he said, adding that 341 samples were tested so far, including 49 in the past 24 hours.

World Health Organisation’s former regional adviser Muzaherul Huq said that testing a handful of people in the country of 160 million could not confirm that the coronavirus did not spread to communities.

He advised equipping the large hospitals and institutions across the country for carrying out coronavirus infection tests.

He went on to name facilities like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital, Combined Military Hospitals, ICDDR,B, Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Chattogram Medical College Hospital, Khulna Medical College Hospital, Rajshahi Medical College Hospital, Barishal Medical College Hospital, Bogura Medical College Hospital and Rangpur Medical College Hospital.

Health minister Zahid Maleque on Wednesday at a discussion at the Secretariat said that COVID-19 units would be opened in eight divisional cities soon to ensure treatment to the patients.

The health minister at another programme in the city expressed fear that the number of COVID-19 patients might increase.

Coronavirus panic has meanwhile gripped healthcare providers and hence patients having respiratory complications are being denied treatment by doctors even at government hospitals.

On Wednesday an octogenarian woman came from Mirpur to the IEDCR with support from her daughter as two government hospitals earlier refused to see her because she suffered from asthma.

The elderly woman’s daughter said to New Age in front of the IEDCR, ‘My mother is a chronic asthma patient but since the coronavirus has started spreading, the doctors are refusing to admit her or even attending her.’

‘We have come to the IEDCR for a solution,’ she said, adding that the IEDCR collected her samples for the COVID-19 tests.

A Dhaka Medical College Hospital doctor, preferring not to be named, said that they were not equipped with protective gears to attend COVID-19 patients.

‘We cannot simply throw our life into danger,’ he said.

When asked, Meerjady admitted that such incidents of denying patients were happening.

She said that the government was working on to address the issue.

She said that the doctors were provided with the safety gears and the allegation was not true that they were not equipped to attend COVID-19 patients.

Meerjady, however, said that four Dhaka Medical College Hospital doctors were sent in quarantine on Wednesday as they attended a patient unprotected and later the patient was tested positive for the virus.

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email