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FACTSHEET: Africa’s leading causes of death in 2016

UPDATE: This factsheet was updated on 8 April 2018 to include the most recent data from the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its global death estimates, releasing data for 2016.

While South America’s Zika epidemic set global news abuzz in 2016, the year was also notable for a different disease outbreak in Africa. Yellow fever caused 9,130 deaths across the continent.

Angola was the epicentre of the outbreak, with 121 confirmed yellow fever deaths and a further 377 suspected. The Democratic Republic of Congo recorded 16 confirmed and 121 suspected deaths.

This factsheet looks at the leading causes of death in Africa in 2016.

8.8 million deaths in 2016

To better understand the leading causes of death in Africa, we first need to put the numbers in context. The UN estimated the continent’s 2016 population at close to 1.2 billion. In that year some 8.8 million deaths were registered, down from 9.7 million in 2000. (Note: The WHO’s Africa region covers 47 of the continent’s 55 countries.)

The WHO categorises deaths in three groups. Group I are caused by communicable (or infectious) diseases, as well as maternal, newborn and nutritional conditions. Group II are caused by non-communicable (or chronic) diseases and Group III by injuries.

How the World Health Organization collects death data

The World Health Organization’s estimates are based on the latest available national information on deaths by place, time and cause. This is collected from national civil death registration systems. The underlying causes of death are captured by the national authority.

In places where this information isn’t available the WHO relies on data collection and modelling based on work of their own and a network of partner organisations.

Data sources and methods of research are available on the organisation’s Global Health Estimates webpage.

Group I

Group I conditions accounted for 5 million deaths (56.0%) in 2016, down from 5.2 million in 2015 (56.4%). Leading causes of death in this category were:

Group I causes of death in 2016
Cause of deathNumber of deathsShare of total deaths
Lower respiratory tract infections 916,85110.4%
Diarrhoeal diseases652,7917.4%
Malaria 408,1254.6%
Tuberculosis 405,4964.6%

Source: World Health Organization

Since 2015 malaria has overtaken tuberculosis in the ranking of infectious causes of death in Africa. But the number of deaths caused by both diseases has continued to decline.

Warmer weather caused by the 2015/16 El Niño event was likely responsible for the surge in mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever and malaria.

Group II

Non-communicable diseases are associated with urbanisation and higher standards of living. They accounted for 3 million deaths (34% of all deaths) in 2016, up from 33.5% in 2015.

The main killers in this category were:

Group II causes of death in 2016
Cause of deathNumber of deathsShare of total deaths
Ischaemic heart disease 511,9165.8%
Cirrhosis of the liver174,4202%

Source: World Health Organization

Group III

Injuries caused 870,000 deaths in 2016. They accounted for 9.8% of all deaths, down from 10.1% in 2015.

The leading causes of death were:

Group III causes of death in 2016
Cause of deathNumber of deathsShare of total deaths
Road injuries283,5163.2%
Interpersonal violence105,9351.2%

Source: World Health Organization

Africa’s top five causes of death

1. Lower respiratory tract infections

Lower respiratory tract infections were Africa’s leading cause of death in 2016. They have held this position since 2010.

The infections affect people’s airways and lungs. They have many different causes, such as viruses and bacteria, and occasionally fungi and parasites. The most common illnesses are bronchitis and pneumonia.

Tuberculosis is not classified as a lower respiratory tract infection because it can infect almost any part of the body.

2. HIV

The human immunodeficiency virus targets the immune system. As it multiplies in the body, it reduces people’s ability to fight infections and cancers.

The most severe phase of the disease is known as Aids, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Aids can take two to 15 years to develop, depending on the person infected. Antiretroviral drugs suppress the replication of the virus in the body and help the immune system recover.

In 2016 an estimated 718,800 deaths were due to HIV/Aids, down from 760,000 deaths in 2015 and 1 million in 2010. Over the past decade the yearly number of deaths from HIV/Aids in Africa has more than halved. This is due to better diagnosis and treatment and more information on the condition.

HIV-positive people are at particular risk of active TB infection. In contrast, TB often takes a latent form in people with healthy immune systems.

The World Health Organization classifies the deaths of people with both TB and HIV as a result of a complication of HIV. If the patient had TB but was HIV-negative, the death is classified as caused by tuberculosis.

But this depends on accurate diagnosis. In places with fewer resources, a patient’s HIV status may not be known. This makes the data less accurate.

3. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is defined as the passage of three or more loose or liquid stools a day, or more than is considered normal for the person. It is often a symptom of infection by a virus, bacterium or parasite.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88% of the global deaths in this category are due to unsafe water, poor sanitation and insufficient hygiene. It is the second leading cause of death of children younger than five worldwide.

Death is caused by dehydration, poor absorption of nutrients or infectious complications, such as damage to the intestinal wall. Malnutrition increases the chance of death.

Deaths from diarrhoeal illnesses dropped from 725,000 in 2010 to 643,000 in 2015. But they increased to 653,000 in 2016.

4. Ischaemic heart disease

Ischaemic heart disease is a narrowing of the arteries of the heart due to a buildup of plaques. Less oxygen is able to reach the parts of the heart beyond the obstruction. Death occurs when an artery suddenly becomes fully blocked, severely damaging the heart. This is known as a heart attack.

In 2016, an estimated 408,000 deaths in Africa were due to this disease, down from 441,000 in 2015.

The factors that put people more at risk of ischaemic heart disease include high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, being overweight, high cholesterol levels, an unhealthy diet, stress and lack of exercise.

5. Parasites and vector-borne diseases

In 2016, the only real change in the top five causes of death was the fifth. We previously followed the WHO’s example and separated malaria from the broad category of “parasites and vector-borne diseases”. It is a diverse category, not limited to one organ, symptom, cause or route of transmission. Malaria is now included in the group, which is almost completely dominated by malaria deaths.

In 2016, malaria and the group as whole took fifth place in the leading causes of death in Africa. There were 408,000 malaria deaths in 2016, up from 373,000 in 2015. There were 473,000 deaths in the broad parasitic and vector diseases category, down from 512,000 in 2015.

Communicable illnesses drive deaths in Africa

The primary cause of death in Africa remains communicable – infectious – diseases, which can be prevented. This is the case in low income countries the world over.

Globally, non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death, at 71% of all deaths.

Warmer weather had a strong impact on death trends in 2016, driving malaria, an insect-spread disease. Africa also continued its slow trend towards high-income patterns of disease, with a steady decrease in deaths from communicable and preventable causes.