Cause of Death
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Global Burden of Disease 2000 (WHO Whitepaper

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Infectious diseases kill 1/3 worldwide; AIDS is top cause of death in developing region

Worldwide, one death in three is from an infectious or communicable disease, such as HIV/AIDS. However, almost all these deaths occur in the non-industrialized world. Health inequality effects not just how people live, but often dictates how and at what age they die.

The pie graphs show the different causes of death between regions of the world defined by the WHO as high and low mortality regions. These areas correspond closely with the non-industrialized and industrialized parts of the world. As the graph shows, the majority of people in high-mortality countries die of communicable diseases, while in low-mortality countries deaths are due largely to non-communicable diseases.

Regional Differences in Cause of Death

The radar graph (right) shows regional differences in causes of death in 2000. The bright blue line represents the world average for each category of cause. The other colored lines show how different regions compare, whether above or below world average. For example, the orange line shows that infectious and parasitic diseases, including measles and malaria, are more frequent causes of death in Sub-Saharan Africa than elsewhere. Respiratory infection disproportionately effects people living in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan African. These two regions are also particularly hit by maternal conditions and perinatal conditions as well. The Asia and the West Pacific region has a rate of non-communicable respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that is nearly 2.5 times higher than the rest of the world. Western Europe has a greater proportion of deaths due to heart (cardiovascular) disease and cancer (malignant and other neoplasms).

AIDS is Top Cause of Death in Developing Regions

HIV/AIDS has become a sudden and prominent cause of death (see AIDS and HIV). In 2001 it was the leading cause of death in non-industrialized regions, claiming 2.7 million lives. In Sub-saharan Africa alone, it claimed 1.9 million lives, and is significantly impacting the Life Expectancy of these countries, as can be seen in the Life Expectancy maps. While HIV/AIDS is an issue in the industrialized world, the number of deaths is significantly less. In 2001, 169,000 people died of HIV/AIDS, or 5% of the world total. For more information, see the WHO’s "Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic 2002."

Leading Causes of Death in 2001

Developing Countries

Number of Deaths

Developed Countries

Number of Deaths

    1. HIV/AIDS

2 678 000

    1. Ischaemic heart disease

3 512 000

    2. Lower respiratory infections

2 643 000

    2. Cerebrovascular disease

3 346 000

  3. Ischaemic heart disease

2 484 000

    3. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

1 829 000

    4. Diarrhoeal diseases

1 793 000

    4. Lower respiratory infections

1 180 000

    5. Cerebrovascular disease

1 381 000

    5. Trachea/bronchus/lung cancers

938 000

    6. Childhood diseases

1 217 000

    6. Road traffic accidents

669 000

    7. Malaria

1 103 000

    7. Stomach cancer

657 000

    8. Tuberculosis

1 021 000

    8. Hypertensive heart disease

635 000

    9. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

748 000

    9. Tuberculosis

571 000

10. Measles

674 000

10. Self-inflicted

499 000

Source: WHO World Health Report 2002. Countries grouped by WHO Mortality Stratum, with Developing Countries representing regions with High and Very High Mortality, and Developed Countries representing regions with Low and Very Low Mortality.

Communicable diseases kill poor children

Other communicable diseases, along with nutritional deficiencies, and maternal and perinatal diseases, continue to take a heavy and largely avoidable toll. According to data from the World Health Organization, in 2001 12.8 deaths were due to these causes, with more than 11 million in non-industrialized regions, mainly India and Sub-Saharan African (see table, above). Together diarrhoeal diseases and lower respiratory infections (including pneumonia) caused 40% of these deaths. ). Together diarrhoeal diseases and lower respiratory infections (including pneumonia) caused 40% of these deaths. Lower respiratory infections killed 3.8 million people, with 2.6 million deaths in the non-industrialized regions. Diarrhoeal diseases caused 1.8 mn deaths, and nearly all were in the non-industrialized world. Tuberculosis, measles and malaria continue to be major threats. In 1990, they collectively killed 2.8 million people in the non-industrialized world -- yet barely registered in the industrialized world. .8 million people in the non-industrialized world -- yet barely registered in the industrialized world.

Infectious diseases disproportionately affect children and childhood death rates.A baby girl born in Sub-Saharan Africa faces a 22 per cent risk of death before age 15. In China the risk is less than 5 per cent and in Industrialized countries the risk is just 1.1 per cent. The vast majority of these deaths could have been prevented with existing interventions.


Burden of Disease Unit, (2000). The Global Burden of Disease Publication Series, Harvard

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