Persian Gulf Initiative: Iraq Mortality Study

Beginning in October 2005, the MIT Center for International Studies began to work with faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to produce a new survey in Iraq that would estimate the numbers of Iraqis who have died as a result of the current war.

Led by Professor Gilbert Burnham, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins, the study used a method that he and others have used several times in situations of conflict, a cluster survey, to estimate "excess deaths." One such instance was a survey of Iraqi excess deaths in the first 18 months of the war, published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, in October 2004.

The study sponsored by MIT involved a much larger sample, a survey of 1,850 households, which began in May and finished in early July of 2006. It was carried out by Iraqi medical doctors from the School of Medicine, Al Mustansiriya University, Baghdad. The Surveyors, after working with Dr. Burnham to randomly select the sites to reflect the entire population of Iraq, conducted the brief interviews to establish a pre-war mortality rate, and the number of residents of those households who have died during the war; they further asked, in those cases, the date of death, the potential cause, and overall demographic data.

Biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins in cooperation with Dr. Burnham and his colleagues (Les Roberts, Stacy Doocey, and Elizabeth Dzeng) then analyzed the data. The final calculation, using a midpoint estimate, holds that 665,000 people have died in Iraq as a result of the war, some 600,000 violently (mainly by gunshot). The violence, moreover, is escalating rapidly.

The study was published in the Lancet and in an expanded version by CIS.

The large numbers produced a reaction. President Bush said the method was not credible. Some analysts believed the estimates corrected a profoundly low bias in most news reporting. Epidemiologists have largely praised the work. Others have questioned whether such low-intensity conflict could result in so many deaths, while acknowledging that previous estimates (such as President Bush’s estimate of 30,000 earlier this year) were significantly mistaken. For some discussion of the controversy, see, for example, the UK Polling Report.