Effects of recall time on cause-of-death findings using verbal autopsy: empirical evidence from rural South Africa

Emerg Themes Epidemiol. 2016 Oct 18;13:10. doi: 10.1186/s12982-016-0051-1. eCollection 2016.


Background: Verbal autopsy (VA) is a widely used technique for assigning causes to non-medically certified deaths using information gathered from a close caregiver. Both operational and cultural factors may cause delays in follow-up of deaths. The resulting time lag-from death to VA interview-can influence ways in which terminal events are remembered, and thus affect cause-of-death assignment. This study investigates the impact of recall period on causes of death determined by VA.

Methods: A total of 10,882 deaths from the Agincourt Health and Demographic Surveillance System (HDSS) with complete VAs, including recall period, were incorporated in this study. To measure seasonal effect, cause specific mortality fractions (CSMFs) were calculated and compared by every cause for VAs undertaken within six months of death and those undertaken from six to 12 months of death. All causes were classified into eight broad categories and entered in a multiple logistic regression to explore outcome by recall period in relation to covariates.

Results: The majority of deaths (83 %) had VAs completed within 12 months. There was a tendency towards longer recall periods for deaths of those under one year or over 65 years of age. Only the acute respiratory, diarrhoeal and other unspecified non-communicable disease groups showed a CSMF ratio significantly different from unity at the 99 % confidence level between the two recall periods. Only neonatal deaths showed significantly different OR for recall exceeding 12 months (OR 1.69; p value = 0.004) and this increased when adjusting for background factors (OR 2.58; p value = 0.000).

Conclusion: A recall period of up to one year between death and VA interview did not have any consequential effects on the cause-of-death patterns derived, with the exception of neonatal causes. This is an important operational consideration given the planned widespread use of the VA approach in civil registration, HDSS sites and occasional surveys.

Keywords: Cause of death; HDSS; Recall; South Africa; Time lapse; Verbal autopsy.