What is the best way to estimate how many people suffer from tuberculosis, from the forests of Central Africa to the highlands of Peru? At a 2-day meeting organized and hosted by the World Heath Organization (WHO) here, 60 leaders in the field of global health statistics drew up a set of proposals to improve the world's ability to count the sick and the dead.
They called for helping countries to collect better information on disease and death and pledged to work together to produce the best estimates from the sparse data sometimes available.
Knowing how many people in which areas suffer from which maladies is crucial for designing effective public health policies. But there's a problem. In areas that have some of the most urgent public health needs, no one is keeping adequate statistics. In many places, there are no records of either births or deaths.
"Where disease burden is greatest, our capacity to measure trends doesn't exist," said Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, at the start of the meeting yesterday.
And even in places with sophisticated health systems, cause-of-death records are often misleading or incorrect. In the United Kingdom, 17% of the deaths are recorded incorrectly, said Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Scientists use the available data and complex computer modeling to fill in the gaps and estimate the burden of, say, turberculosis in Peru or high blood pressure in Italy. In the biggest effort ever undertaken, a group of scientists in December published the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2010 study, which estimated disease burdens—death as well as years of life affected by disability—for 291 diseases and injuries in 20 age groups in 21 global regions.
On 5 March, the study, which Murray coordinates, will publish its country estimates for the same set of diseases. (They will also announce plans to launch a Global Burden of Disease 2.0, which will be updated annually—or even more frequently.)