Damned lies and statistics

A closer look at statistics in the news

Emily Cadman

The latest World Health Organisation statistics report has thrown a light on the unglamorous but essential backbone of health policy – accurate death reporting.

According to the report, currently only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where more than 90 percent of births and deaths are registered – and unsurprisingly most of these 34 countries are in Europe and the Americas.

It’s not surprising that war torn countries like Afghanistan might have had other concerns than registration data. But the list of countries without comprehensive data include major economic and population centres like China and India – both of whom use sample registration approaches. The full country by country list is on this pdf.

WHO region No death registration
Low quality Medium quality High quality Number of WHO
Member States
AFR 42 2 1 1 46
AMR 2 7 13 13 35
SEAR 7 4 0 0 11
EUR 2 11 24 16 53
EMR 9 10 2 0 21
WPR 12 4 7 4 27
Global 74 38 47 34 193

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Valentina Romei

Markets promptly react to flash releases of economic indicators and large sums of money are lost or made based on zero-point-something percentage points of GDP growth. But, in the excitement of new economic data, it is worth remembering how data is subject to frequent and quite substantial revisions.

Notoriously, in 2010 Japan’s most watched economic indicator was drastically revised downwards, slicing off a full 3.5 percentage points from the annualised growth rate first reported for the third quarter of 2009, prompting soul searching about the quality of Japanese economic data. But revisions occur across many countries and not only after the flash releases.

An OECD database of the various edition of the monthly publication of the Main Economic Indicators (MEI) shows how widespread the issue is. Read more