Vital statistics (government records)
Vital statistics is accumulated data gathered on live births, deaths, fetal deaths, marriages and divorces. The most common way of collecting information on these events is through civil registration, an administrative system used by governments to record vital events which occur in their populations. Efforts to improve the quality of vital statistics will therefore be closely related to the development of civil registration systems in countries.
A vital statistics system is defined by the United Nations "as the total process of (a) collecting information by civil registration or enumeration on the frequency or occurrence of specified and defined vital events, as well as relevant characteristics of the events themselves and the person or persons concerned, and (b) compiling, processing, analyzing, evaluating, presenting, and disseminating these data in statistical form" (UN, 2001). Civil registration, as defined by the United Nations, is the" continuous, permanent, compulsory, and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events (livebirths, deaths, fetal deaths, marriages, and divorces) and other civil status events pertaining to the population as provided by decree, law or regulation, in accordance with the legal requirements in each country."
The origin of vital statistics begins as early as 1854 with James Stark in Register House in Edinburgh in reaction to the Scottish Registration Act and death by social class was recorded in England beginning in 1921.
While the number of births and deaths can be obtained by enumeration at certain points in time (e.g. censuses and surveys), civil registration collects this information on a continuous basis and is the only source that provides individuals with a legal document. For instance, the importance of birth registration as the first legal recognition of the child is emphasized in Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that "the child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, the right to acquire a nationality and, as far as possible, the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents". United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and a number of non-governmental organizations (Plan International, Save the Children Fund, World Vision, etc.) have particularly promoted the human rights aspects of registration, while the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have focused more on the statistical aspects of civil registration.
Countries which are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child are therefore expected to set up systems to register the births of all children. Non-registration of a child can have negative consequences on the wider enjoyment of a child’s fundamental rights to benefits such as identity, inheritance, education, health and other social services. Birth registration is also part of a broader strategy to ensure that children are less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, especially if separated from their parents. In the absence of a functioning birth registration system, it is difficult to see how a country can enforce age-related legal concerns such as schooling, child labour, juvenile justice, early marriage, sexual exploitation and military recruitment. Recent natural disasters and calamities have also demonstrated the utility of a birth certificate for reuniting lost children with their families.
Many civil registration systems also collect information on causes of death. Statistics based on these death records are of particular importance in public health for identifying the magnitude and distribution of major disease problems, and are essential for the design, implementation, monitoring, and assessment of health programmes and policies.
Toronto scientist, professor Prabhat Jha argues that inexpensive recording of vital statistics in developing countries is the most effective means to improve global health and has outlined 5 options for expanding Cause of Death reporting.
"Despite the importance of tracking causes of death and the tradition since 1893 of standardisation of definitions and coding for causes of death in the International Classification of Diseases and Injuries (ICD), global assessments of causes of death are a major analytical challenge. Vital registration systems that include medical certification of the cause of death captured about 18.8 million deaths of an estimated annual total of 51.7 million deaths in 2005, which is the latest year for which the largest number of countries reported deaths from a vital registration system. Even for these deaths, the comparability of findings on the leading causes of death is affected by variation in certification skills among physicians, the diagnostic and pathological data available at the time of completing a death certificate, variations in medical culture in choosing the underlying cause, and legal and institutional frameworks for governing mortality reporting. For the remaining deaths that are not medically certified, many different data sources and diagnostic approaches must be used from surveillance systems, demographic research sites, surveys, censuses, disease registries, and police records to construct a consolidated picture of causes of death in various populations. Because of the variety of data sources and their associated biases, causes of death assessments are inherently uncertain and subject to vigorous debate."
The agency responsible for overseeing this system in the United States is the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vital statistics for the US can be found here.
The agency responsible for overseeing the vital statistics system in Canada is the Vital Statistics Program of the Centre for Population Health Data, a division of Statistics Canada. Vital statistics for Canada can be found here.
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- Media related to Vital statistics at Wikimedia Commons