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Glob Health Action. 2014 May 15;7:22443. doi: 10.3402/gha.v7.22443. eCollection 2014.

Demographic, epidemiological, and health transitions: are they relevant to population health patterns in Africa?

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Public Health Research Institute and Department of Demography, University of Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada;



Studies of trends in population changes and epidemiological profiles in the developing world have overwhelmingly relied upon the concepts of demographic, epidemiological, and health transitions, even though their usefulness in describing and understanding population and health trends in developing countries has been repeatedly called into question. The issue is particularly relevant for the study of population health patterns in Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, as the history and experience there differs substantially from that of Western Europe and North America, for which these concepts were originally developed.


The aim of this study is two-fold: to review and clarify any distinction between the concepts of demographic transition, epidemiological transition and health transition and to identify summary indicators of population health to test how well these concepts apply in Africa.


Notwithstanding the characteristically diverse African context, Africa is a continent of uncertainties and emergencies where discontinuities and interruptions of health, disease, and mortality trends reflect the enduring fragility and instability of countries and the vulnerabilities of individuals and populations in the continent. Africa as a whole remains the furthest behind the world's regions in terms of health improvements and longevity, as do its sub-Saharan African regions and societies specifically. This study documents: 1) theoretically and empirically the similarities and differences between the demographic transition, epidemiological transition, and health transition; 2) simple summary indicators that can be used to evaluate their descriptive and predictive features; 3) marked disparities in the onset and pace of variations and divergent trends in health, disease, and mortality patterns as well as fertility and life expectancy trajectories among African countries and regions over the past 60 years; 4) the rapid decline in infant mortality and gains in life expectancy from the 1950s through the 1990s in a context of preponderant communicable diseases in all African countries; 5) the salient role of adult mortality, mostly ascribed to HIV/AIDS and co-morbidities, since the 1990s in reversing trends in mortality decline, its interruption of life expectancy improvements, and its reversal of gender differences in life expectancies disadvantaging women in several countries with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS; 6) the huge impact of wars in reversing the trends in under-five mortality decline in sub-Saharan countries in the 1990s and beyond. These assessments of these transition frameworks and these phenomena were not well documented to date for all five regions and 57 countries of Africa.


Prevailing frameworks of demographic, epidemiological, and health transitions as descriptive and predictive models are incomplete or irrelevant for charting the population and health experiences and prospects of national populations in the African context.


Africa; cross-national comparison; demographic transition; epidemiological transition; epidemiology of population change; global health; health transition; population health; sex differentials; sub-Saharan Africa; systematic review

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