Post-op deaths top HIV, TB, malaria combined

Around the world 4.2 million people die every year within 30 days after surgery – with half of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new study. That total equals more deaths than from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria – combined (2.97 million).

Since half of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, where surgery is less accessible, the findings reveal the disproportionate burden of postoperative death globally. While risk of dying is related to the type of procedure, on average, the risk was twice as great in lower income countries than high-income countries.

Factoring in the significant unmet need for surgery in low- and middle-income countries, researchers believe the number of global post-operative deaths might further increase to 6.1 million.

Western researchers in collaboration with the University of Birmingham and University of Cape Town published their global analysis on the risk of dying within 30 days of surgery in a research letter to The Lancet.

“This study answers a question that’s never been asked before – where does post-operative mortality rank in terms of overall global causes of death?” said Janet Martin, a Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor and co-author on the paper. “The finding more people die each year within 30 days after surgery than from the big three global burdens of disease, means that if we put more focus on improving safety of surgery worldwide, we can potentially save many more lives than funding HIV, TB, and malaria combined.”

The researchers analysed available information to estimate how many people around the world die after operations based on surgical volume, case-mix and post-operative death rates adjusted for country income.

The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery identified that 313 million surgical procedures are performed each year, but little is known about the quality of surgery globally, as robust postoperative death rates are available for only 29 countries.

“Surgery has been the ‘neglected stepchild’ of global health and has received a fraction of the investment put in to treating infectious diseases such as malaria,” said Dr. Dmitri Nepogodiev, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, primary author on the paper.

At Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Martin is leading a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre that has the specific task of studying access to safe surgery, anesthesia, and perioperative care on the global stage.

The Schulich team is the first collaborating centre to be designated by the WHO to address this complex surgical and perioperative care problem. They are working to understand the gaps in resources, capacity, infrastructure and training in countries around the globe in order to develop evidence-based priorities toward universal safe and effective essential surgery and anesthesia.

At present, around 4.8 billion people worldwide lack timely access to safe and affordable surgery and it is estimated that there is an annual unmet need for 143 million procedures in low- and middle- income countries. Since safe surgery can save lives and improve quality of life, funding research on how to achieve this equally in low-middle income countries and high-income countries should become a high priority.