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BACKGROUND: We assessed whether Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), a large and high-quality source of under-5 mortality estimates in developing countries, would be able to detect reductions in under-5 mortality as established in global child health goals. METHODS AND RESULTS: Mortality estimates from 41 DHS conducted in African countries between 1986 and 2002, for the interval of 0-4 years preceding each survey (with a mean time lag of 2.5 years), were reviewed. The median relative error on national mortality rates was 4.4%. In multivariate regression, the relative error decreased with increasing sample size, increasing fertility rates, and increasing mortality rates. The error increased with the magnitude of the survey design effect, which resulted from cluster sampling. With levels of precision observed in previous surveys, reductions in all-cause under-5 mortality rates between two subsequent surveys of 15% or more would be detectable. The detection of smaller mortality reductions would require increases in sample size, from a current median of 7060 to over 20,000 women. Across the actual surveys conducted between 1986 and 2002, varying mortality trends were apparent at a national scale, but only around half of these were statistically significant. CONCLUSIONS: The interpretation of changes in under-5 mortality rates between subsequent surveys needs to take into account statistical significance. DHS birth history surveys with their present sampling design would be able to statistically confirm under-5 mortality reductions in African countries if true reductions were 15% or larger, and are highly relevant to tracking progress towards existing international child health targets.

Original publication




Journal article


Int J Epidemiol

Publication Date





1293 - 1301


Africa, Child Mortality, Child, Preschool, Demography, Developing Countries, Epidemiologic Methods, Female, Forecasting, Global Health, Health Surveys, Humans, Infant, Infant Mortality, Infant, Newborn, Male