Malaria deaths vastly under-counted

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Malaria deaths in India have been underestimated, says a new report published in the British medical journal The Lancet. And not just by a small amount. The study says that malaria kills 200,000 people in India alone every year. That's thirteen times more than the World Health Organization had previously estimated. The World's Health and Science Editor David Baron's been following the story. So David, the new study suggests that in India alone, for every one malaria death that's counted, there are twelve deaths that go uncounted, which seems pretty amazing because malaria is not an unknown disease. So how could statistics and scientists be so far off the mark?

DAVID BARON: Well, it's long been known that the estimates of malaria deaths are probably not very accurate because most people who get sick from malaria and who die from malaria are not actually seen at health centers. Malaria is really a disease of the poor and so a lot of people are getting sick of an unknown illness, dying at home, and the question is how many of those people are there who are not caught in the official statistics? The WHO has tried in the past to account for that, but these new researchers have used a new technique and they have come up with a much, much higher figure.

MULLINS: So what was the technique that the authors of this study [OVERLAPPING]

BARON: Well, what they did is they started with how many people die at home in India without having been seen by a doctor. And India actually sends out trained workers to interview family members and do what are called verbal autopsies. So the researchers took thousands of those verbal autopsies, sent them to doctors, and then asked those doctors based on the symptoms here do you think this patient had malaria? And in about three and a half percent of those cases, the doctors said we think it was malaria. But I should say the WHO, the World Health Organization, they're not really buying these statistics and they take issue with this verbal autopsy technique.

MULLINS: David, it sounds as if getting a correct count of malaria deaths in a place like India becomes an extremely politicized issue very quickly.

BARON: Absolutely because after all the number of people coming down the disease, dying with the disease, says a lot about where government priorities should be. Imagine if tomorrow someone said that in the United States there are thirteen times more people being murdered each year than we thought, or who are dying from AIDS than we thought, that would suggest a change in government policy. And, in fact, this fits into a long standing dispute between malaria researchers and the Indian government. Malaria researchers have felt that India has been downplaying the numbers and one of the researchers who led the new study in The Lancet is quoted in an Indian paper today saying �Let's hope these findings shake up the system.� So that's clearly what they're hoping is going to happing

MULLINS: Thank you very much. The World's Health and Science Editor David Baron, talking about the disputed calculations on the death toll malaria takes in India. Thank you, David.

BARON: Thanks, Lisa.