OBJECTIVES: Effective early warning systems of humanitarian crises may help to avert substantial increases in mortality and morbidity, and prevent major population movements. The Butajira Rural Health Programme (BRHP) in Ethiopia has maintained a programme of epidemiological surveillance since 1987. Inspection of the BRHP data revealed large peaks of mortality in 1998 and 1999, well in excess of the normally observed year-to-year variation. Further investigation and enquiry revealed that these peaks related to a measles epidemic, and a serious episode of drought and consequent food insecurity that went undetected by the BRHP. This paper applies international humanitarian crisis threshold definitions to the BRHP data in an attempt to identify suitable mortality thresholds that may be used for the prospective detection of humanitarian crises in population surveillance sites in developing countries.
STUDY DESIGN: Empirical investigation using secondary analysis of longitudinal population-based cohort data.
METHODS: The daily, weekly and monthly thresholds for crises in Butajira were applied to mortality data for the 5-year period incorporating the crisis periods of 1998-1999. Days, weeks and months in which mortality exceeded each threshold level were identified. Each threshold level was assessed in terms of prospectively identifying the true crisis periods in a timely manner whilst avoiding false alarms.
RESULTS: The daily threshold definition is too sensitive to accurately detect impending or real crises in the population surveillance setting of the BRHP. However, the weekly threshold level is useful in identifying important increases in mortality in a timely manner without the excessive sensitivity of the daily threshold. The weekly threshold level detects the crisis periods approximately 2 weeks before the monthly threshold level.
CONCLUSION: Mortality measures are highly specific indicators of the health status of populations, and simple procedures can be used to apply international crisis threshold definitions in population surveillance settings for the prospective detection of important changes in mortality rate. Standards for the timely use of surveillance data and ethical responsibilities of those responsible for the data should be made explicit to improve the public health functioning of current sentinel surveillance methodologies.
2009. Vol. 123, no 2, 151-155 p.
Humanitarian crisis; Famine; Mortality surveillance; Demographic surveillance sites