AUTOPSY IN NIGERIA: Understanding this unique approach to Forensic Investigation

By Avril Eyewu-Edero

Most people will not want the dead body of their loved one desecrated, but the truth is finding out what leads to an individual’s death has a lot of benefits. To do this, an autopsy is conducted.

An autopsy (post-mortem examination) is an examination of a dead body done by opening the body up and examining the organs physically. This is done in most cases to determine the cause, mode and manner of death, disprove pre-death diagnosis, evaluate drug strategy and for legal requirement.

This procedure is usually carried out by a pathologist. The 4 types of autopsy are clinical or hospital autopsy (diagnosis of diseases), medicolegal or forensic autopsy (for legal issues, e.g. homicidal cases), family autopsy, and academic autopsy.

Autopsies have been found to provide answers to unsolvable puzzles about what leads to deaths in many countries and this has been well appreciated and adopted because of its observed advantages. However, the idea of autopsy in developing countries are still in their neophyte stage and considered taboos in different environment due to many factors impeding its acceptance.

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For instance, many people in an educated country like Nigeria with highly cosmopolitan citizens still cite religious and cultural beliefs as reasons for not seeing the need for an autopsy.

Many people simply believe a dead body should not be desecrated. Some religious beliefs demand immediate burial while some think an autopsy provides opportunity for ritualists.

In reality autopsies are very important!

From a clinical perspective, an autopsy has broad usefulness. During an autopsy, all organs in the body (head to toes) including body fluids are thoroughly examined physically, tissues microscopically studied and, in some cases, toxicologically analyzed for drugs and poison. From this procedure, any medical issue may be detected and reported in the autopsy report; this could include but not limited to undiagnosed hereditary medical issues and genetic disorders, which could, in turn, save a family and help them manage those who are alive.

There are instances when someone dies in an accident but during autopsy, one of the findings was that the deceased had HIV/AIDS, when the wife is given the report and sees the diagnosis, although devastated, this will help her get tested and perhaps if positive, she commences treatment, thereby extending her life span.

From the medicolegal perspective, forensic examination after an incident is necessary to ensure all circumstances are documented. Indeed, an assumed obvious cause of death might not be that obvious. For example, ruling that someone who died in a car accident, died as a result of the accident could be wrong, but with an autopsy, it could be found that the person had a heart attack which led to the crash; this could be correlated with other forensic analysis such as forensic toxicology which would indicate if the deceased was under the influence of any substance; forensic accident analysis to know if there were any mechanical fault or bad driving behavior that resulted in the accident.

Guy Rutty, the Chief Forensic Pathologist at University of Leicester has carried out some researches and works on non-invasive autopsies, using medical imaging to investigate cause of natural death, which could be an alternative approach for a highly cultural and religious society like Nigeria, however, a major limiting factor of this process is its inability to diagnose coronary artery disease which is the most common cause of natural death in the world and an increasing cause of death in Nigeria.

Although the non-invasive autopsy could appear favorable to multi-ethnic and multi-cultural dynamic society like Nigeria, however, the obvious limiting factor and the admissibility of this process in court, especially convincing the judge who is more familiar with the traditional invasive method, it offers better options than none could pose an issue.

In Nigeria, we have phenomenal forensic pathologists like Profs. William Odesanmi and John Obafunwa who have carried out several forensic autopsies and presented their evidence in court to help explain circumstances of death. I previously worked with Prof. John Obafunwa and his team. It was such a great experience helping people understand known and unknown circumstances.

It is important that Nigerians embrace the concept of autopsy as one of the processes of a forensic investigation into an incident as this would help provide evidence to seek justice and could also help with the diagnosis of any hereditary disease to save a family and most importantly, it could help to provide closure.

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