Not Saussure

October 12, 2006

Deaths in Iraq and a feeble lie from the PM’s Office

Filed under: Iraq, Medicine — notsaussure @ 5:34 pm

The Lancet (free registration required) has reported that, in the words of the Telegraph,


About 650,000 more Iraqis have lost their lives since the start of the war than would have died if the occupation had not occurred, research shows. American and Iraqi epidemiologists, whose research was published online yesterday by the medical journal The Lancet, said that a more than doubling of the mortality rate between the periods before and after the March 2003 invasion constituted a “humanitarian emergency”. The estimate, far higher than the figures produced by other bodies, including the Iraqi government, was calculated by randomly sampling homes containing 12,800 individuals across Iraq and checking death certificates.

Not surprisingly, these figures have been questioned because they are so much higher than those collected by other means. The Lancet study addresses this point, however:

Our estimate of excess deaths is far higher than those reported in Iraq through passive surveillance measures. This discrepancy is not unexpected. Data from passive surveillance are rarely complete, even in stable circumstances, and are even less complete during conflict, when access is restricted and fatal events could be intentionally hidden. Aside from Bosnia, we can find no conflict situation where passive surveillance recorded more than 20% of the deaths measured by population-based methods. In several outbreaks, disease and death recorded by facility-based methods underestimated events by a factor of ten or more when compared with population-based estimates. Between 1960 and 1990, newspaper accounts of political deaths in Guatemala correctly reported over 50% of deaths in years of low violence but less than 5% in years of highest violence. Nevertheless, surveillance tallies are important in monitoring trends over time and in the provision of individual data, and these data track closely with our own findings

Garry, at A Big Stick and A Small Carrot,  points out that The Lancet’s figures and research methods are peer-reviewed and suggests, not unreasonably,

here’s what I’d like to see journalists tackling this story do. When giving airtime to obviously politically interested parties who question this report, I’d like them to ask these partisans whether their criticisms have the backing of four independent experts. That wouldn’t be so difficult.

One criticism — from the office our Dear Leader — can be knocked on the head straight away.

Tony Blair’s official spokesman also dismissed the report today, saying it was not a figure the Government believed to be “anywhere near accurate”.

He told reporters: “The problem with this is that they are using an extrapolation technique from a relatively small sample, from an area of Iraq which isn’t representative of the country as a whole.

Not so. You can read the details of the sampling technique in the report itself, but essentially

50 clusters were randomly selected from 16 Governorates, with every cluster consisting of 40 households. Information on deaths from these households was gathered.

piis0140673606694919gr3lrg.gifHere’s a graphical representation of the areas they surveyed (click to enlarge).

An area of Iraq which isn’t representative of the country as a whole? Sixteen out of eighteen provinces, you juggins! Christ Almighty, I expect politicians and their minions to lie but they might have the courtesy to do it a bit more convincingly; the buggers get paid enough, after all.

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