Objective: To reassess the practical value of verbal autopsy data, which, in the absence of more definitive information, have been used to describe the causes of maternal mortality and to identify priorities in programmes intended to save women's lives in developing countries.
Methods: We reanalysed verbal autopsy data from a study of 145 maternal deaths that occurred in Guerrero, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí, Mexico, in 1995, taking into account other causes of death and the WHO classification system. The results were also compared with information given on imperfect death certificates.
Findings: The reclassification showed wide variations in the attribution of maternal deaths to single specific medical causes.
Conclusion: The verbal autopsy methodology has inherent limitations as a means of obtaining histories of medical events. At best it may reconfirm the knowledge that mortality among poor women with little access to medical care is higher than that among wealthier women who have better access to such care.