'A bothersome death'--narrative accounts of infant mortality in Cape Town, South Africa

Soc Sci Med. 1995 Apr;40(7):945-53. doi: 10.1016/0277-9536(94)00164-o.


Traditional measures of health status such as mortality rates and cause-of-death information give limited insight into the role of caregivers and health care providers in infant illness and death. To the extent that the behaviours of these parties can be accurately mapped, they may reveal important sites for effective community interventions and the improvement of medical care. This possibility is explored in relation to infant mortality in Cape Town, South Africa, by analysing verbal histories provided by the caregivers of 70 infants in the course of obtaining police death certification. From these verbal histories it appears that acute respiratory infection and diarrhoeal disease caused the majority of deaths. Infants with a respiratory condition were likely to have been taken for medical attention prior to death. By contrast, the parents of infants with diarrhoeal disease, while more active towards these infants, were less likely to seek medical care--these infants typically being found dead in bed or dying en route to the hospital or clinic. A story of infant death at home following recent medical care was obtained in over half the cases. This study demonstrates a simple method for the examination of the content and structure of lay accounts of illness and death. The implications for health care of such accounts are discussed in terms of the behavioural antecedents of infant mortality due to acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal disease.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death*
  • Cause of Death
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Death Certificates
  • Developing Countries*
  • Diarrhea, Infantile / mortality*
  • Diarrhea, Infantile / psychology
  • Female
  • Home Nursing / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / mortality*
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / psychology
  • South Africa / epidemiology