Bulletin of the World Health Organization

A method for deriving leading causes of death

Roberto Becker, John Silvi, Doris Ma Fat, André L’Hours, & Ruy Laurenti



A standard list for ranking leading causes of death worldwide does not exist. WHO headquarters, regional offices and Member States all use different lists that have varying levels of detail. We sought to derive a standard list to enable countries to identify their leading causes of death and to permit comparison between countries. Our aim is to share the criteria and methodology we used to bring some order to the construction of such a list, to provide a consistent procedure that can be used by others, and to give researchers and data owners an opportunity to utilize the list at national and subnational levels.


Results were primarily data-driven. Data from individual countries representing different regions of the world were extracted from the WHO Mortality Database. Supplementary information from WHO estimates on mortality was used for regions where data were scarce. In addition, a set of criteria was used to group the candidate causes and to determine other causes that should be included on the list.


A ranking list of the leading causes of death that contains broad cause groupings (such as “all cancers”, “all heart diseases” or “all accidents”) is not effective and does not identify the leading individual causes within these broad groupings; thus it does not allow policy-makers to generate appropriate health advocacy and cost-effective interventions. Similarly, defining candidate causal groups too narrowly or including diseases that have a low frequency does not meet these objectives.


For international comparisons, we recommend that countries use this list; it is based on extensive evidence and the application of public health disease-prevention criteria. It is not driven by political or financial motives. This list may be adapted for national statistical purposes.