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This was according to the latest Global Burden of Disease Collaborative study that was released in Seattle on Tuesday.
The study, which compared data collected from 1990 to the information from 2010, found that Aids was responsible for 48% of early deaths in South Africa followed by diarrhoeal diseases (4.9%) and interpersonal violence (4.4%). In 1990 the number one cause of early death was diarrhoeal disease with HIV–related deaths occupying only the 12th position.
"The [study] is a collaborative project of nearly 500 researchers in 50 countries led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. It is the largest systematic scientific effort in history to quantify levels and trends of health loss due to diseases, injuries and risk factors," the authors of the study said.
Interactive online tools
The study, through a number of interactive online graphs and maps, provided detailed information about the burden of disease in all 187 countries surveyed. This information included how many years a person lived in poor health as well as what factors influenced the prevalent diseases and injuries.
International health philanthropist Bill Gates, one half of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is the primary donor of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said: "The tools that are being released today are really quite amazing and they're going to make a huge difference in the world of global health."
Gates believes that because all of this global health data is located in one place, and can be easily compared, it will encourage debate among experts around the world and will advance the improvements in global health.
Researchers said they hoped the tools would revolutionise the way counties look at health as well as configure regional health policy.
"This will help us get better health policies more rapidly than we've been able to do in the past," he said.
GBD and South Africa
The study also calculated the risk factors that contributed to the burden of disease. The three leading risk factors in South Africa were:
- Alcohol use – this had the biggest influence on intentional injuries, unintentional injuries and transport injuries.
- High body-mass index – this largely affected heart-related diseases, diabetes, and muscle and bone-related disorders such as arthritis and tendonitis.
- High blood pressure – this had the largest impact on heart-related conditions, while it also affected the rate at which diabetes increased.
But the leading risk factor for children under five was not enough breastfeeding.
Christopher Murray, director of the institute, said that it is important to look at health in a comprehensive way. "Counting deaths is an inadequate way to think about priorities in health because a death at age 90 just isn't as important as a death at age 1."
He believes it is more beneficial to look at, among other things, years of life lost.
"With each death we count up the amount of lifespan that an individual has lost – so a child death represents their entire lifespan," he said.
This allowed researchers to analyse and address the causes of premature deaths as opposed to the general reasons for mortality in a population, he said.
Health conditions affect an individual's ability to live a productive life – some diseases more than others.
"Years lived with disability are estimated by weighting the prevalence of different conditions based on severity," explained the authors of the study. In South Africa the top causes of years lived with disability were HIV, clinical depression, lower back pain, iron-deficiency anaemia and lung–related diseases.
The study also compared the effect conditions have on populations among countries with a similar income per capita. South Africa was compared with 14 other countries including Iran, Brazil, Jamaica, Serbia and Cuba. In 2010, South Africa ranked 15th (last) for most of the health conditions identified among comparator countries including HIV, tuberculosis, interpersonal violence, drug use disorders, epilepsy, and hypertensive heart disease.
Gates said he hoped the study's tools will help change these negative health outcomes.
"This kicks off a world where we're really going to be able to talk about our health statistics in a deep way."