Maternal recall of symptoms associated with childhood deaths in rural east Africa
Verbal autopsies (VA) are frequently used to determine causes of death for individuals for whom there is no reliable clinical information regarding the terminal illness. VA interviews are used to note key symptoms and signs recalled by relatives of the deceased and diagnoses ascribed according to the symptom complexes. The VA technique assumes that individual disease entities have discrete symptom complexes and that these can be accurately recognized and recalled by the interviewees. We have examined the accuracy with which specific symptoms are recalled over time by mothers or normal guardians of 491 children who died on the paediatric wards of two district hospitals in East Africa. Kwashiorkor, measles, trauma, generalized convulsions and neonatal tetanus were all reported with a high degree of accuracy for children who died of these conditions and had low false positive rates for children without these conditions. Recall was similar within 1 month of death compared to recall after 6 months for most symptoms and signs except neonatal tetanus where false positive reports by mothers increased with time since death. Symptoms and signs commonly used to describe malaria, respiratory tract and diarrhoea-related deaths were reported by mothers to have been present during the terminal illness in 43% of cases where these features were absent. Recall abilities differed between the two communities studied for some symptoms and signs highlighting the importance of such studies in every setting where VA are applied.