Date Published: August 17, 2010
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Peter Byass, Kathleen Kahn, Edward Fottrell, Mark A. Collinson, Stephen M. Tollman, Colin Mathers
Abstract: Peter Byass and colleagues compared two methods of assessing data from verbal autopsies, review by physicians or probabilistic modeling, and show that probabilistic modeling is the most efficient means of analyzing these data
Partial Text: Throughout the history of public health, the concept of recording causes of individual deaths in a population and presenting them in aggregate form has been a central component of understanding health and disease at the community level. This continues to be the case, even though the extent and quality of cause of death data varies widely around the world .
The Agincourt HDSS covers rural communities located in northeast South Africa, near the Mozambican border, and has monitored a contiguous population of around 70,000 since 1992. The background to this work is described more fully elsewhere , in a paper which analyses cause-specific mortality from 6,153 deaths that occurred between 1992 and 2005, on the basis of cause of death as determined by physician review. These physician reviews of VA interview material were each initially undertaken by two physicians independently. If they did not agree as to cause, a third physician arbitrated in order to reach a consensual cause of death. If consensus could not be reached, then no cause of death was recorded.
The same 6,153 deaths as presented previously using physician-interpreted causes  are shown in Table 1, with cause of death as determined from the same VA material by the InterVA model and shown by cause and age–sex group. The physician-determined CSMFs for the overall population are also shown for comparison. The ten highest ranking causes constituted 83.3% of the total according to physician interpretation and 88.2% according to probabilistic interpretation, and 8/10 of these causes were the same according to both approaches (HIV, tuberculosis, chronic cardiac, diarrhoea, pneumonia/sepsis, transport-related accidents, homicides, and indeterminate). The fractional causes of death from the model reflect the aggregation of likelihoods of particular causes over age–sex subgroups within the Agincourt population. These subgroups are the same as those used for the input file to the InterVA model.
Having considered the causes of more than 6,000 deaths over a 14-year period, the ten highest-ranking causes accounted for 83% and 88% of all deaths by physician interpretation and probabilistic modelling respectively, and eight of the highest ten causes were common to both approaches. Probabilistic modelling was cheaper and more internally consistent than physician interpretation. Uncertainty around the cause(s) of individual deaths was recognised as an important concept that should be reflected in any overall analysis of cause-specific mortality.