Effort to Chart Global Deaths Draws Backlash

Dr. Christopher Murray in Tanzania
Image credit
Photo Courtesy of the University of Washington.

With the groundbreaking Global Burden of Disease study, the celebrated and controversial Christopher Murray has devoted his career to tabulating and quantifying the sources of human death and suffering in every part of the world.

Author Jeremy N. Smith’s new book Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients, covers the Global Burden of Disease study and the economist/physician’s work.

In this excerpt of an interview for the independent news program and podcast Tiny Spark Amy Costello and Smith discuss Murray’s audacious project to determine what is killing and plaguing people in every corner of the globe.

Tiny Spark has shared this transcript through special arrangement with Global Health NOW.

COSTELLO: Trying to figure out how people were dying around the globe wasn’t easy. Smith noted that most people, in most countries—and this is true today—don’t have death records.

So Murray and his global team of computer scientists, number crunchers and medical specialists would have to find other ways of calculating mortality. With reliable data, the thinking went, we could channel our aid dollars based on facts instead of hunches. Murray’s team received a lot of pushback from charities who’d been relying on different data.

SMITH: When he tried to fill in the numbers more, he found that they contradicted basically all the figures produced by all the advocacy groups.

COSTELLO: One of the most fascinating things I found about your book was all of the controversy that came from so many different powerful organizations and people to the data that Chris Murray and his team were bringing to the table. And just to give people an idea of the scope of this project that he was undertaking: at one point, when they submitted the papers to The Lancet for the Global Burden of Disease, it had 488 named coauthors from 303 institutions in 50 countries … just an incredible feat.

SMITH: It’s an extraordinary collaboration. It’s on par with the Human Genome Project or some of this International Space Station stuff. And I think belies his reputation, Chris Murray’s, as someone who you can’t collaborate with, if he’s got these papers that he’s spearheading that have collaborators from every other country in the world.

COSTELLO: And what do we learn from this about collaboration? Because you know, I look at the nonprofit sector a lot and it is, unfortunately, many people say notorious for duplicative efforts. And the Global Burden of Disease initiative seemed to me a real lesson about the power of many different organizations and some of the top experts in a field coming together for one project.

SMITH: … People realize the stakes because these are the numbers that ultimately determine how people spend their time and money. USAID uses it, the UK and Australian international agencies use it … individual nations are starting to use these numbers to figure out what’s really hurting people … how can we direct our resources to save or help the lives of the most people.

COSTELLO: Talk to me a little bit about the pushback that Chris Murray and his colleagues receive from organizations like the UN, the World Bank and the WHO as he started to come out with data that contradicted the data that these other large groups had been providing for many years.

SMITH: … a famous case in that it got to the front page of The New York Times, was when they estimated maternal mortality fatalities ... For decades, this number was thought to be fixed at about 500,000 women dying a year from childbirth. The Global Burden of Disease Study analysis suggested that, in fact, numbers had fallen quite a bit. A third fewer women were dying than authorities had said. Now, the initial response from some advocates for mothers was panic … Not because it was necessarily wrong, but because it would threaten their funding … and there is this scarcity mentality and scarcity reality that advocacy groups are competing with one another, and even with people within their own sector. The fighting within AIDS groups for funding or within child mortality groups for funding is quite fierce, so you can only imagine how fierce it is between AIDS or cancer groups, or child mortality and road injuries, which affect adults in greater numbers.

Visit Tiny Spark for the full interview and learn what this funding competition means for ordinary people, why the Millennium Development Goals were lacking in good data, and what happened when Chris Murray met Bill Gates.

Amy Costello, MA, is the founder and managing editor of Tiny Spark. This interview was produced by Amy Ta, BA, Tiny Spark’s associate producer. 

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