Comments on the Lancet and other mortality studies


Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator*   Comments on the Lancet Study and other Mortality Surveys [PDF] 153 pages - September 2007


Interview with Les Roberts 


A study of 13 war affected countries presented at a recent Harvard conference found over 80% of violent deaths in conflicts go unreported by the press and governments. City officials in the Iraqi city of Najaf were recently quoted on Middle East Online stating that 40,000 unidentified bodies have been buried in that city since the start of the conflict. When speaking to the Rotarians in a speech covered on C-SPAN on September 5th, H.E. Samir Sumaida’ie, the Iraqi Ambassador to the US, stated that there were 500,000 new widows in Iraq . The Baker-Hamilton Commission similarly found that the Pentagon under-counted violent incidents by a factor of 10. Finally, a week ago the respected British polling firm ORB released the results of a poll estimating that 22% of households had lost a member to violence during the occupation of Iraq, equating to 1.2 million deaths. This finding roughly verifies a less precisely worded BBC poll last February that reported 17% of Iraqis had a household member who was a victim of violence. There are now two polls and three scientific surveys all suggesting the official figures and media-based estimates in Iraq have missed 70-95% of all deaths. The evidence suggests that the extent of under-reporting by the media is only increasing with time.” (Les Roberts, 20 Sep 2007 -

Iraqi deaths survey 'was robust'

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC World Service
The British government was advised against publicly criticising a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the war, the BBC has learnt.

Iraqi Health Ministry figures put the toll at less than 10% of the total in the survey, published in the Lancet.

But the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the survey's methods were "close to best practice" and the study design was "robust".

Another expert agreed the method was "tried and tested".

Mortality rates

The Iraq government asks the country's hospitals to report the number of victims of terrorism or military action.

Critics say the system was not started until well after the invasion and requires over-pressed hospital staff not only to report daily, but also to distinguish between victims of terrorism and of crime.

The Lancet medical journal published its peer-reviewed survey last October.

It was conducted by the John Hopkins School of Public Health and compared mortality rates before and after the invasion by surveying 47 randomly chosen areas across 16 provinces in Iraq.

Are we really sure the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies
Foreign Office official

The researchers spoke to nearly 1,850 families, comprising more than 12,800 people.

In nearly 92% of cases family members produced death certificates to support their answers. The survey estimated that 601,000 deaths were the result of violence, mostly gunfire.

Shortly after the publication of the survey in October last year Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."

But a memo by the MoD's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, on 13 October, states: "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."

'Cannot be rubbished'

One of the documents just released by the Foreign Office is an e-mail in which an official asks about the Lancet report: "Are we really sure the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies."

The reply from another official is: "We do not accept the figures quoted in the Lancet survey as accurate. "

In the same e-mail the official later writes: "However, the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones."

Asked how the government can accept the Lancet's methodology but reject its findings, the government has issued a written statement in which it said: "The methodology has been used in other conflict situations, notably the Democratic republic of Congo.

"However, the Lancet figures are much higher than statistics from other sources, which only goes to show how estimates can vary enormously according to the method of collection.

"There is considerable debate amongst the scientific community over the accuracy of the figures."

'Mainstreet bias'

In fact some of the British government criticism of the Lancet report post-dated Sir Roy's comments.

Speaking six days after Sir Roy praised the study's methods, British foreign office minister Lord Triesman said: "The way in which data are extrapolated from samples to a general outcome is a matter of deep concern...."

It would appear they were only able to sample a small sliver of the country
Dr Michael Spagat

Some scientists have subsequently challenged the validity of the Lancet study. Questions have been asked about the survey techniques and the possibility of "mainstreet bias".

Dr Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway London University says that most of those questioned lived on streets more likely than average to witness attacks: "It would appear they were only able to sample a small sliver of the country," he said.

Dr Spagat has previously conducted research with Iraq Body Count, an NGO that counts deaths on the basis of media reports and which has produced estimates far lower than those published in the Lancet.

If the Lancet survey is right, then 2.5% of the Iraqi population - an average of more than 500 people a day - have been killed since the start of the war.

The BBC World Service made a Freedom of Information Request on 28 November 2006. The information was released on 14 March 2007.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/03/26 15:53:12 GMT

© BBC MMVII,1,3333316.story?ctrack=1&cset=true
From the Los Angeles Times

Poll: Civilian death toll in Iraq may top 1 million

A British survey offers the highest estimate to date. At least 4 die in a Sadr City car bombing.
By Tina Susman
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 14, 2007

BAGHDAD — -- A car bomb blew up in the capital's Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City on Thursday, killing at least four people, as a new survey suggested that the civilian death toll from the war could be more than 1 million.

The figure from ORB, a British polling agency that has conducted several surveys in Iraq, followed statements this week from the U.S. military defending itself against accusations it was trying to play down Iraqi deaths to make its strategy appear successful.

The military has said civilian deaths from sectarian violence have fallen more than 55% since President Bush sent an additional 28,500 troops to Iraq this year, but it does not provide specific numbers.

According to the ORB poll, a survey of 1,461 adults suggested that the total number slain during more than four years of war was more than 1.2 million.

ORB said it drew its conclusion from responses to the question about those living under one roof: "How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003?"

Based on Iraq's estimated number of households -- 4,050,597 -- it said the 1.2 million figure was reasonable.

There was no way to verify the number, because the government does not provide a full count of civilian deaths. Neither does the U.S. military.

Both, however, say that independent organizations greatly exaggerate estimates of civilian casualties.

ORB said its poll had a margin of error of 2.4%. According to its findings, nearly one in two households in Baghdad had lost at least one member to war- related violence, and 22% of households nationwide had suffered at least one death. It said 48% of the victims were shot to death and 20% died as a result of car bombs, with other explosions and military bombardments blamed for most of the other fatalities.

The survey was conducted last month.

It was the highest estimate given so far of civilian deaths in Iraq. Last year, a study in the medical journal Lancet put the number at 654,965, which Iraq's government has dismissed as "ridiculous."

The car bomb in Sadr City injured at least 10 people and set fire to several shops. Also Thursday, police said they had found the bodies of nine people believed to be victims of sectarian killings across the capital.

In its latest salvo at Iran, the U.S. military accused the Islamic Republic of providing the 240-millimeter rocket that earlier this week slammed into Camp Victory, the sprawling base that houses the U.S. Army headquarters. The attack on the base near Baghdad's airport injured 11 soldiers and killed one "third-country national."

At a news conference, a military spokesman, Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, displayed a chunk of metal that he said had come from the rocket. Asked how he could be sure it was of Iranian origin, Bergner said its color and markings were unique to rockets from Iran.

The United States accuses Iran's Shiite leaders of providing weapons, training and other assistance to Shiite militias fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran denies the accusation.