Verbal autopsies for adult deaths: their development and validation in a multicentre study

Trop Med Int Health. 1998 Jun;3(6):436-46. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-3156.1998.00255.x.


Background: Verbal autopsy (VA) has been widely used to ascertain causes of child deaths, but little is known about the usefulness of VA for adult deaths. This paper describes the process used to develop a VA tool for adult deaths and the results of a multicentre validation of this tool.

Methods: A mortality classification was developed by including causes of death that might be arrived at by VAs and causes that are responsive to public health interventions. An algorithm was designed for each cause in the classification, based on classifying symptoms into essential, supportive and differential. A structured questionnaire designed to elicit information on these symptoms was developed in English translated into the local languages. The tool was validated on deaths occurring at hospitals in Tanzania (315 deaths), Ethiopia (249) and Ghana (232). Hospital records of all adult deaths occurring at the study hospitals from June 1993 to April 1995 were collected prospectively. Non-medical interviewers with at least 12 years of formal education conducted VA interviews. Causes of death were diagnosed by a panel of physicians and by a computerized algorithm. The validity of the VA was assessed by comparing the VA diagnoses with hospital diagnoses.

Results: Specificity of VAs by physicians fell below 95% only for acute febrile illness (AFI) and TB/AIDS. Sensitivity and positive predictive value (PPV), however, varied widely both across the sites and between causes. Sensitivity was > 75% for tetanus, rabies, direct maternal causes, injuries and TB/AIDS and ranged between 60% and 74% for diarrhoea, acute abdominal conditions and AFI. The PPV was > 75% for tetanus, rabies, hepatitis and injuries and ranged between 60 and 74% for meningitis, AFI, TB/AIDS and direct maternal causes. When the communicable diseases were combined in a single group, the sensitivity was 82%, specificity 78% and PPV 85%. For the group of noncommunicable diseases the corresponding sensitivity, specificity and PPV were 71%, 87% and 67%, respectively. Use of an algorithm resulted in lower sensitivity, specificity and PPV than the VAs by physician.

Conclusion: VAs by a panel of physicians performed better than an opinion-based algorithm. The validity of VA diagnosis was highest for AFI, direct maternal causes, TB/AIDS, tetanus, rabies and injuries.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Africa
  • Aged
  • Algorithms
  • Autopsy / methods*
  • Cause of Death*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity