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BACKGROUND: Registration of the fact of death is almost complete in the city of Chennai and not so in the rural Villupuram district in Tamilnadu, India. The cause of death is often inadequately recorded on the death certificate in developing countries like India. A special verbal autopsy (VA) study of 48,000 adult (aged >or= 25 yrs) deaths in the city of Chennai (urban) during 1995-97 and 32,000 in rural Villupuram during 1997-98 was conducted to arrive at the probable underlying cause of death to estimate cause specific mortality. METHODS: A ten day training on writing verbal autopsy (VA) report for adult deaths was given to non-medical graduates with at least 15 years of formal education. They interviewed surviving spouse/close associates of the deceased to write a verbal autopsy report in local language (Tamil) on the complaints, symptoms, signs, duration and treatment details of illness prior to death. Each report was reviewed centrally by two physicians independently. Random re-interviewing of 5% of the VA reports was done to check the reliability and reproducibility of the VA report. The validity of VA diagnosis was assessed only for cancer deaths. RESULTS: Verbal autopsy reduced the proportion of deaths attributed to unspecified and unknown causes from 54% to 23% (p < 0.0001) in urban and from 41% to 26% (p < 0.0001) in rural areas in Tamilnadu for adult deaths (>or= 25). The sensitivity of VA to identify cancer was 95% in the age group 25-69. CONCLUSION: A ten day training programme to write verbal autopsy report with adequate feed back sessions and random sampling of 5% of the verbal autopsy reports for re-interview worked very well in Tamilnadu, to arrive at the probable underlying cause of death reliably for deaths in early adult life or middle age (25-69 years) and less reliably for older ages (70+). Thus VA is practicable for deaths in early adult life or middle age and is of more limited value in old age.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Public Health

Publication Date





Adult, Age Factors, Aged, Autopsy, Cause of Death, Coroners and Medical Examiners, Death Certificates, Documentation, Female, Humans, India, Inservice Training, Interviews as Topic, Middle Aged, Neoplasms, Rural Population, Sensitivity and Specificity, Surveys and Questionnaires, Urban Population