Background: Given the lack of complete vital registration data in most developing countries, for many countries it is not possible to accurately estimate under-five mortality rates from vital registration systems. Heavy reliance is often placed on direct and indirect methods for analyzing data collected from birth histories to estimate under-five mortality rates. Yet few systematic comparisons of these methods have been undertaken. This paper investigates whether analysts should use both direct and indirect estimates from full birth histories, and under what circumstances indirect estimates derived from summary birth histories should be used.
Methods and findings: Usings Demographic and Health Surveys data from West Africa, East Africa, Latin America, and South/Southeast Asia, I quantify the differences between direct and indirect estimates of under-five mortality rates, analyze data quality issues, note the relative effects of these issues, and test whether these issues explain the observed differences. I find that indirect estimates are generally consistent with direct estimates, after adjustment for fertility change and birth transference, but don't add substantial additional insight beyond direct estimates. However, choice of direct or indirect method was found to be important in terms of both the adjustment for data errors and the assumptions made about fertility.
Conclusions: Although adjusted indirect estimates are generally consistent with adjusted direct estimates, some notable inconsistencies were observed for countries that had experienced either a political or economic crisis or stalled health transition in their recent past. This result suggests that when a population has experienced a smooth mortality decline or only short periods of excess mortality, both adjusted methods perform equally well. However, the observed inconsistencies identified suggest that the indirect method is particularly prone to bias resulting from violations of its strong assumptions about recent mortality and fertility. Hence, indirect estimates of under-five mortality rates from summary birth histories should be used only for populations that have experienced either smooth mortality declines or only short periods of excess mortality in their recent past. Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary.