The media are missing the real story behind South Africa’s death statistics.
The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the Health Ministry was rechecking its figures after announcing that South Africa suffered a death toll last year of 756 000, a third more than the previous year. The sudden increase in deaths was, predictably, attributed to Aids.
Academics and scientists have since questioned the figure, saying such surge in deaths – equivalent to the destruction wreaked by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima – was highly unlikely. Someone, it seems, may have transposed the 5 and the 7. Kudos to the Sunday Times for exposing the error.
But buried deep inside the Sunday Times’ story are figures which, to my mind, represent a much more important story: South Africa’s death rate is actually declining. According to Statistics South Africa, 601 133 people died in 2007, fewer than the 612 462 who died in 2006. Figures for 2008 are not yet available. The Department of Home Affairs, which keeps its own records, reported that 553 144 people died in 2007, compared with 558 002 the previous year.
No matter whose statistics you accept, the conclusion is clear: given that the population is growing, the rate of deaths is declining significantly, even in the face of what is supposed to be the most serious Aids epidemic in the world. That, surely, is a big story. Why is it not front page news?
For the same reason, I suspect, that most journalists uncritically accepted the obviously wrong death figure cited by the Ministry of Health last year. A surge in deaths fits neatly with the catastrophist vision of Aids in South Africa. A decline in deaths doesn’t. In short, good news is no news.
Update: Have since found the latest population estimates on the Statistics South Africa website. The Sunday Times apparently missed them. The story is even better.
Total deaths in South Africa have been in decline since reaching a peak of 634 100 in 2005. Total deaths fell to 602 800 in 2008. The number of Aids deaths have dropped from a peak of 298 600 in 2005 to 257 500 last year. Average life expectancy at birth has increased from 50.3 years to 53.5 for men, and from 54.6 to 57.2 for women. Given that the population has increased from 43.98 million to about 49.32 million over the same period, the rate of deaths due to Aids has dropped from about 1 442 per 100 000 of the population in 2005 to 1 222 last year, by my calculations.
It has to be said that Stats SA’s death data are estimates, not hard data. (The tables even include estimated total deaths for 2009 – clearly not something Statistics SA could measure with any emperical certainty). But all our assumptions about Aids are based on estimates, including the worst-case scenarios. The the story these statistics are telling is that we’re winning the battle against Aids. If I were a newspaper editor, I’d be trumpeting it on the front page.