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BMJ Glob Health. 2018 May 3;3(3):e000640. doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000640. eCollection 2018.

Use of verbal autopsy and social autopsy in humanitarian crises.

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Centre for Global Development and Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK.
MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt), School of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Umeå Centre for Global Health Research, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden.
Department of Global Health and Development, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), London, UK.



Two billion people live in countries affected by conflict, violence and fragility. These are exceptional situations in which mortality shifts dramatically and in which civil registration and vital statistics systems are often weakened or cease to function. Verbal autopsy and social autopsy (VA and SA) are methods used to assign causes of death and understand the contexts in which these occur, in settings where information is otherwise unavailable. This review sought to explore the use of VA and SA in humanitarian crises, with a focus on how these approaches are used to inform policy and programme responses.


A rapid scoping review was conducted on the use of VA and SA in humanitarian crises in low and middle-income countries since 1991. Drawing on a maximum variation approach, two settings of application ('application contexts') were selected and investigated via nine semi-structured expert interviews.


VA can determine causes of death in crisis-affected populations where no other registration system is in place. Combined with SA and active community involvement, these methods can deliver a holistic view of obstacles to seeking and receiving essential healthcare, yielding context-specific information to inform appropriate responses. The contexts in which VA and SA are used require adaptations to standard tools, and new mobile developments in VA raise specific ethical considerations. Furthermore, collecting and sythesising data in a timely, continuous manner, and ensuring coordination and communication between agencies, is important to realise the potential of these approaches.


VA and SA are valuable research methods to foster evidence-informed responses for populations affected by humanitarian crises. When coordinated and communicated effectively, data generated through these methods can help to identify levels, causes and circumstances of deaths among vulnerable groups, and can enable planning and allocating resources effectively, potentially improving health system resilience to future crises.


health Policy; health systems; public health; qualitative study; review

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