News FocusGlobal Health

How Do You Count the Dead?

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Science  15 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6087, pp. 1372-1374
DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6087.1372

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Understanding how many people die of which causes is invaluable for designing effective public health programs, global health experts say. But most of the world's deaths occur in places with few or no hospitals or doctors to record deaths and their causes, forcing scientists to extrapolate from survey data, incomplete records, and research studies. Various groups use different statistical methods, sometimes resulting in very different numbers that are hotly debated. Now the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is conducting the most massive study of deaths and disease ever undertaken, which aims to assemble the cause of 1 billion deaths worldwide going back to 1980. It will be published in a series of papers later this year and is likely to trigger new debates. Some say that's necessary and healthy. Others worry that the sharply diverging estimates and the bickering will erode policymakers' trust in science.