Background: Two World Health Organization comparative assessments rated the quality of South Africa's 1996 mortality data as low. Since then, focussed initiatives were introduced to improve civil registration and vital statistics. Furthermore, South African cause-of-death data are widely used by research and international development agencies as the basis for making estimates of cause-specific mortality in many African countries. It is hence important to assess the quality of more recent South African data.
Methods: We employed nine criteria to evaluate the quality of civil registration mortality data. Four criteria were assessed by analysing 5.38 million deaths that occurred nationally from 1997-2007. For the remaining five criteria, we reviewed relevant legislation, data repositories, and reports to highlight developments which shaped the current status of these criteria.
Findings: National mortality statistics from civil registration were rated satisfactory for coverage and completeness of death registration, temporal consistency, age/sex classification, timeliness, and sub-national availability. Epidemiological consistency could not be assessed conclusively as the model lacks the discriminatory power to enable an assessment for South Africa. Selected studies and the extent of ill-defined/non-specific codes suggest substantial shortcomings with single-cause data. The latter criterion and content validity were rated unsatisfactory.
Conclusion: In a region marred by mortality data absences and deficiencies, this analysis signifies optimism by revealing considerable progress from a dysfunctional mortality data system to one that offers all-cause mortality data that can be adjusted for demographic and health analysis. Additionally, timely and disaggregated single-cause data are available, certified and coded according to international standards. However, without skillfully estimating adjustments for biases, a considerable confidence gap remains for single-cause data to inform local health planning, or to fill gaps in sparse-data countries on the continent. Improving the accuracy of single-cause data will be a critical contribution to the epidemiologic and population health evidence base in Africa.