"Unfortunately, it is the environment," said the Ministry of Health's deputy director, Abdul Nasidi. "The environment is so dirty. We are trying to work with the Ministry of Environment to inculcate in Nigerians how to live in a better environment. We want to get to the bottom of these outbreaks."
"It is a serious outbreak," Sokoto state health commissioner, Jabbi Kilgori, said at the height of the outbreak on 10 October. "We have 23 local government areas and at least 10 are affected. We have between 2,000 and 3,000 people affected and 120 deaths."
He said authorities had initially thought the illness was cholera.
"We have received reports from four, five states in the northwest in particular," said the Ministry of Health's Nasidi on 11 October. "From some of the samples taken, we tested for cholera and they were all negative."
Similar to cholera, gastroenteritis causes diarrhoea, but beyond that, stomach and intestinal inflammation can also cause pain, nausea and vomiting. Parasite-laden faecal-contaminated drinking or cooking water cause both illnesses. If left untreated, both can quickly kill.
Kilgori told IRIN officials are acting as quickly as possible, contrary to what some locals said was a sluggish start to control the spread: "We [local health officials] are taking measures, including the use of oral dehydration [and] antibiotics, disinfecting the affected areas and ensuring that sanitation is improved - especially where people defecate," he said, adding that the source of drinking water must be protected.
Kilgori said Sokoto state is distributing gastroenteritis treatments worth US$200,000 in the north.
Rivers, ponds and open wells in northern Nigeria, which serve as the main sources of drinking water in the typically arid communities, have been contaminated by unusually heavy rains in recent months, the doctor told IRIN.
"We have to provide proper latrines to these communities," said Kilgori. "We are also working to protect the source of drinking water and encourage people to avoid drinking water from open water sources."
Northern residents said the death toll may be higher as most of the deaths were never reported and the victims were buried the same day, in line with Islamic custom.
"I can confirm 90 deaths in Dange Shunni [in the northern region] alone," declared Sokoto-based primary health worker, Aminu Abdullahi, who visited the area in early October. "Most of [the people] died at home and were buried without the health authorities being informed."