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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Dead reckoning - the need for data on mortality rates in Africa

What do we know about mortality rates in Africa? How has HIV affected death rates? Do we have enough data to answer these questions? Research from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine investigates mortality rates in Africa. More and better demographic data are essential to help governments develop policy in response to the HIV epidemic.

Mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa are higher than in the other world regions. Trends in the 1970s and 80s suggested that mortality rates were declining in a number of African countries, but by the end of the 80s they had begun to rise again. This was due to various factors, including economic difficulties, conflict and the spread of HIV.


This study reviews the available data for both child and adult mortality in Africa. Findings include:

  • Africa remains a high mortality region, but rates vary across the continent, making it difficult to generalise. For example, in the mid-1980s, countries in western Africa had some of the lowest and highest mortality rates.
  • The trend towards a decline in mortality rates was reversed during the 1980s in parts of Africa. Economic crises have been a factor in this, but the long-term failure to develop human resources is probably at the root of this reversal in most of Africa.
  • Data on HIV are only available for the early stages of the epidemic. Even then, HIV had a dramatic impact on mortality in several African countries. In many countries, AIDS mortality will overwhelm the progress made in the control of infectious diseases during the last half-century.

In general, the availability of data for the study of mortality in Africa has improved during the last five years, but there are still large gaps. For example, there are little data on mortality in two of the most populous countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Generally, more data are available on child mortality than on adults.

The findings of this report have the following implications for policy:

Contributor(s): Ian Timaeus

‘Mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa’ by I. Timaeus, in 'Health and mortality: issues of global concern. Proceedings of the symposium on health and mortality, Brussels, 19-22 November 1997' CBGS and UN Population Division (1999)
Related references: 'Adult mortality in the era of AIDS' by I. Timaeus in 'The African population in the 21st century: third African population conference, Durban, South Africa, vol 2' (1999) "The impact of HIV/AIDS on adult mortality in South Africa" by R. Dorrington et al., Burden of Disease Research Unit Technical Report, Medical Research Council, South Africa (2001)

Funded by: unknown

id21 Research Highlight: 23 November 2001

Further Information:
Ian Timaeus
Centre for Population Studies
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
50 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3DP

Tel: +44 (0)20 7299 4689
Fax: +44 (0)20 7299 4637

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK

Other related links:

The CDC provides global morbidity and mortality data.

UNDP also has information on HIV/AIDS.