Objective: To validate the causes of death determined with a single verbal autopsy instrument covering all age groups in the Agincourt subdistrict of rural South Africa.
Methods: Verbal autopsies (VAs) were conducted on all deaths recorded during annual demographic and health surveillance over a 3-year period (1992-95) in a population of about 63 000 people. Trained fieldworkers elicited signs and symptoms of the terminal illness from a close caregiver, using a comprehensive questionnaire written in the local language. Questionnaires were assessed blind by three clinicians who assigned a probable cause of death using a stepwise consensus process. Validation involved comparison of VA diagnoses with hospital reference diagnoses obtained for those who died in a district hospital; and calculation of sensitivity, specificity and positive predictive value (PPV) for children under 5 years, and adults 15 years and older.
Results: A total of 127 hospital diagnoses satisfied the criteria for inclusion as reference diagnoses. For communicable diseases, sensitivity of VA diagnoses among children was 69%, specificity 96%, and PPV 90%; among adults the values were 89, 93 and 76%. Lower values were found for non-communicable diseases: 75, 91 and 86% among children; and 64, 50 and 80% among adults. Most misclassification occurred within the category itself. For deaths due to accidents or violence, sensitivity was 100%, specificity 97%, and PPV 80% among children; and 75, 98 and 60% among adults. Since causes of death were largely age-specific, few differences in sensitivity, specificity and PPV were found for adults and children. The frequency distribution of causes of death based on VAs closely approximated that of the hospital records used for validation.
Conclusion: VA findings need to be validated before they can be applied to district health planning. In Agincourt, a single verbal autopsy instrument provided a reasonable estimate of the frequency of causes of death among adults and children. Findings can be reliably used to inform local health planning and evaluation.