The picture of life painted by death

2011-01-29 00:00

THERE is a welter of economic statistics used to assess how life in different nations compares. But it is our differing deaths in a developing country and a mature economy that paint the starkest picture.

Late last year, Statistics South Africa released its 2008 mortality figures and a few days ago, those for England and Wales in 2009 were published. While comparison is bedevilled by factors such as different demographic profiles and South Africa's less accurate data, the similar size in population — South Africa with 49 million people, England and Wales (E&W) with 53 million — makes it irresistible.

South Africa's mortality in 2008 declined marginally for the second year in a row, to 592 073 deaths, of which 52 950 were non-natural. In E&W, it was 491 348, dropping from 509 090 in 2008, of which 17 878 were non-natural. Life expectancy in the United Kingdom is 79,4 years, while in South Africa it is 49,3 years.

In E&W, 11 917 deaths were accidental, of which 2 284 were transport accidents. In turn, 922 of those were car occupants, 431 were motorcyclists and 153 were pedestrian deaths.

In SA, 33 983 deaths were accidental, of which 5 785 were transport accidents. Strangely, Statistics SA analyses road deaths every which way — age, province, month of year, sex — but not by category of victim. The SA National Road Agency, however, estimates that 50% of road deaths are pedestrians.

In E&W, 3 593 people died from falls (a corollary to an ageing population), 3 457 from suicide (a corollary to existential ennui), 1 537 from accidental poisoning and 279 from exposure to smoke, fire and flames.

In South Africa, 2 362 were smoke or fire deaths, poisonings were 814, while only 442 were suicides (why kill yourself when there are many people eager to do it for you?), and a mere 150 were falls.

In South Africa, 5 468 people died from assault, while Statistics South Africa notes that almost all (98%) of the 5 647 people who died from the quaintly phrased "exposure to inanimate mechanical forces" were gunshot deaths. Since we know from police figures that 18 148 people were murdered in 2008, the other homicides are presumably recorded in the 18 429 "other" deaths.

In E&W, 318 people died from assault, but similarly we know from police figures that 651 people were murdered in 2009, a drop of 102 on the previous year and the lowest figure in 20 years.

Turning to natural causes, in E&W the major causes of death are circulatory diseases (158 500), cancers (140 497), respiratory diseases (67 559), and diseases of the nervous system (17 408) and digestive system (25 230).

In South Africa, they are tuberculosis (74 863), influenza and pneumonia (45 602), intestinal infectious diseases (39 951), "other" heart diseases (26 190), cerebrovascular diseases (24 363) and diabetes (19 558).

Statistics South Africa lists only 15 097 HIV-related deaths. An analysis by the Medical Research Council of death certificate data, however, gives a 2001 figure of 153 357 HIV deaths, while the Actuarial Society's 2006 estimate is 345 640, amounting to 47% of all deaths in that year. UNAids' estimate for 2009 is 310 000.

Proof enough that life in the developing world is indeed, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "poor, nasty, brutish and short".

In E&W, only 295 deaths are specifically attributed to HIV, 305 from tuberculosis, and 1 861 from intestinal infectious diseases.

Pregnancy and childbirth claimed 237 babies in E&W, and while Statistics South Africa does not give this as a specific category, Save the Children estimates that each year 20 000 babies are stillborn and another 22 000 die before they reach one month of age.

Interestingly, there is one cause of death that statistically does not exist anywhere — old age. However, 164 people in England and Wales were recorded as expiring of "malaise and fatigue". Clearly, just tired of life.

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