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Estimating Darfur deaths

April 27th, 2008 · No Comments

The educated guesswork of estimating Darfur deaths
17 hours ago

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) — When a top UN official released a new estimated death toll of 300,000 for Darfur this week, he reignited a lively debate about just how accurate such statistics are.

John Holmes, the UN emergency relief aid coordinator, told reporters that as many as 300,000 people may have died from the combined effects of war, diseases and famine over the past five years in the western Sudanese region.

This was significantly up from the widely used 200,000 figure cited by his predecessor, Jan Egeland, and based on a World Health Organization (WHO) study.

“It’s a reasonable extrapolation from the previous figures,” Holmes said. “I am not trying to suggest this is a very scientifically-based figure.”

But Eric Reeves, a Sudan scholar at Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts, said Holmes’ figure was “very, very conservative.”

“I think that if we include violent mortality, the number approaches 500,000, based on data coming from the Coalition of International Justice (CIJ) suggesting that over 200,000 had died violently by the end of 2004,” he told AFP Friday.

Meanwhile Sudan’s UN Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem dismissed those figures as “wildly exaggerated” and told reporters: “In our own calculation, the total number (of deaths from fighting) does not exceed 10,000.”

He said this tally did not include those who died from diseases and malnutrition, which have generally been the main causes of civilian deaths in most of the major conflicts of the past two decades.

Chasing mortality statistics in Darfur is a daunting task and aid workers reported harassment and intimidation from Sudanese authorities while conducting field surveys.

Some experts have questioned the credibility of some Darfur advocay groups who are accused of inflating their mortality statistics to rally public support for their cause.

In an Op-Ed to the Financial Times in 2005, Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir, head of the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) and a professor of epidemiology at Louvain’s Catholic University in Brussels, warned that “sensational numbers do not help the Darfur cause.”

She was specifically referring to a 400,000 death toll figure then used by Reeves and the CIJ.

CRED, a Brussels-based WHO collaborating center widely viewed as the authority on Darfur fatality rates, points out that the 200,000 figure cited by Egeland since 2005 was based on a 2004 WHO mortality survey which showed around 10,000 dead per month when the conflict was most virulent.

The typical mortality rate for sub-Saharan African countries is around 16 dead per 1,000 people per year. In order to assess deaths due to the Darfur conflict, experts calculate the differences between the current mortality rate there and this reference rate of 16 per 1,000 a year.

“In 2005, we estimated the deaths due to the Darfur conflict to be about 125,000, of which about 25 percent were due to direct violence for (the period) 2003 – June 2005,” said CRED researcher Olivier Degomme.

“The UN estimated about 200,000 deaths due to the conflict for about the same period,” he added.

“Since 2005, there has surely been many more deaths in Darfur. Basic health services do not function, children do not get vaccinated nor fed adequately, drought is a pervasive problem, there are sporadic attacks of civilian populations,” Guha-Sapir told AFP.

“Given our estimations until 2005 and a rough analyses of the additional surveys we have received, the UN estimation of 300,000 deaths from the start of hostilities until present time seems to us to be in the realms of reality,” she added. “This means for epidemiologists that this figure would fall within the confidence interval of the new estimate that we hope to release shortly.”

Most deaths in Darfur are due to malnutrition and preventable childhood diseases such as measles, diarrhea and respiratory infections, all of which can be controled and cured very cheaply, according to CRED.

Since actual deaths due to combat related violence are typically few, Guha-Sapir said it would therefore be misleading “to use that statistic as it gives the impression that the conflict is not very significant because combat related deaths are small.”

CRED monitors and analyses health and mortality data from more than 20 conflict-affected regions in the world. Its researchers collect field surveys and provide mortality estimates using statisitcs methods such as meta-analyses and triangulation.

More than 2.2 million people are also believed to have fled their homes in Darfur since the conflict broke out when ethnic minority rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated regime and Khartoum-backed Arab militias.

Tags: darfur

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