Objective: We sought to assess the current status of global data on death registration and to examine several indicators of data completeness and quality.
Methods: We summarized the availability of death registration data by year and country. Indicators of data quality were assessed for each country and included the timeliness, completeness and coverage of registration and the proportion of deaths assigned to ill-defined causes.
Findings: At the end of 2003 data on death registration were available from 115 countries, although they were essentially complete for only 64 countries. Coverage of death registration varies from close to 100% in the WHO European Region to less than 10% in the African Region. Only 23 countries have data that are more than 90% complete, where ill-defined causes account for less than 10% of total of causes of death, and where ICD-9 or ICD-10 codes are used. There are 28 countries where less than 70% of the data are complete or where ill-defined codes are assigned to more than 20% of deaths. Twelve high-income countries in western Europe are included among the 55 countries with intermediate-quality data.
Conclusion: Few countries have good-quality data on mortality that can be used to adequately support policy development and implementation. There is an urgent need for countries to implement death registration systems, even if only through sample registration, or enhance their existing systems in order to rapidly improve knowledge about the most basic of health statistics: who dies from what?