Web-based tool charts disease, risk factors around the world and through time


At a news conference Tuesday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates spoke about the latest attempt to quantify the diseases and ailments that are killing or disabling people across the globe. (Nick Adams/Reuters)
March 5, 2013

Interactive graphics showing how causes of death and disability, and risk factors for disease, differ between countries and change over time were unveiled Tuesday.

The information is from the massive Global Burden of Disease project produced by 488 researchers and 303 institutions in 50 countries. It provides health profiles of 187 countries and allows the user to compare a nation to its geographic, economic or cultural neighbors.

The screens are interactive. Users can key in 291 diseases and 67 risk factors and see how prevalence has changed since 1990.

The graphs and lists are likely to function as a report card for policymakers, a hypothesis-generator for epidemiologists and an alternative to solitaire for global health wonks. The data are used in a study appearing in the Lancet this week that compares Britain’s health with that of 15 other European countries over 20 years.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates provided $8.2 million for the 2010 update of the project, which began in 1993. Speaking Tuesday at an event in Seattle where the Web tools were unveiled, he said that “it’s the areas where we go in and do a good job of measurement that we make the most progress.”

The foundation that Gates and his wife, Melinda, run has spent $26 billion since 1997, most of it on improving health in developing countries.

The Global Burden of Disease project is led by Christopher J.L. Murray, a physician and economist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The institute was created in 2007 with a $105 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

Murray and another researcher, Alan Lopez, produced the first Burden of Disease report in 1993. It introduced the concept of the “disability-adjusted life year” (DALY), defined as the sum of years lost to premature death and years lived with disability.

Various disabilities — such as blindness, loss of a leg, chronic headaches, depression — were given the equivalents of fractions of a year of life lost. The idea was to go beyond mortality and capture how non-fatal illnesses also diminish life. Gates said he had an epiphany when he read the report and saw various health conditions described in terms of DALYs.

“I was completely stunned by the burden of disease in poor countries,” he said. “To see that diarrhea was killing literally millions of children, and that some of those causes of diarrhea, like rotavirus, were preventable. . . . It was seeing that data, that early visualization that’s nowhere near what we’ve got today, that got the Gates Foundation on the track of focusing on global health.”

Researchers will add to the data at least annually.

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