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Press Release

Uncovering global causes of death: turning verbal autopsy data into meaningful information


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Most deaths in Africa and Asia are either unregistered, or registered without cause of death. Often this happens because there are no adequate tools for registering deaths, or for assigning cause of death when no doctor is present.

Scanty information on causes of death is a major public health concern – accurate information is essential for policy-makers to identify major causes of death, and evaluate health initiatives.

Verbal autopsy, where care-givers and witnesses are interviewed and the information they give is interpreted into causes of death, helps to fill this knowledge gap. The interpretation is often physician-led, which is slow, expensive and uses up doctors’ time – a scarce resource. Automating this interpretation to give rapid, consistent and affordable cause-of-death data would be hugely beneficial.

An international study, published in the Journal of Global Health, compared physician-coded causes of death from 54,000 verbal autopsies with causes from an automated computer-based tool (InterVA-4). It found a high degree of equivalence between both methods.

As a result, the study’s authors call for verbal autopsy interpretation to be automated. This would overcome the inherent complexities in assigning cause of death and meet the urgent need for reliable global cause-of-death statistics.

For more information, contact Prof Peter Byass, WHO Collaborating Centre for Verbal Autopsy, Umeå University ([email protected])

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