Dispute Over Malaria Figures Highlights Lack Of Certainty In Data In Age Of ‘Information Overload’

In this post in TIME World’s “Global Spin” blog, TIME’s Africa bureau chief Alex Perry examines questions surrounding an Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) study published in the Lancet on Friday that suggests “malaria kills almost twice as many people a year as previously believed,” writing, “If correct, at a stroke that overturns medical consensus, makes a nonsense of decades of World Health Organization (WHO) statistics — the official malaria numbers — and plunges the current multibillion-dollars anti-malaria campaign, and the push to reach a 2015 deadline for achieving the eight Millennium Development Goals, into grave doubt.”

Perry notes, “WHO disputed the new figures, saying IHME had used unreliable verbal testimony, rather than clinical autopsies, to arrive at its figure,” and “the IHME claims that if the WHO did measure the trend correctly, it woefully underestimated the size of the problem.” He concludes, “Some people look at these statistical about-turns and smell a rat. They conclude that aid workers and health campaigners manipulate figures for their own purposes: to give the impression of a crisis in a fundraising drive or make out that a catastrophe has been averted when it comes to performance assessments. … But the disputed malaria figures would seem to reveal a different truth. In a world that sometimes seems wondrously connected, and where people worry about information overload, it’s a sobering thought that, more often than we’d like, we really don’t know what’s going on out there” (2/6).