Post-operative deaths take more lives annually than HIV, TB, malaria combined: study

Surgeon reaching for instrument on tray operating room. Getty Images

A new study involving work by local researchers offers some disturbing findings about the global rate of death after surgery.

The data, by scientists at Western University, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Capetown, shows 4.2 million people around the world die every year within 30 days of surgery. That makes it the third leading cause of death worldwide.

They estimate that more people die each year within a month after their operations than the 2.97 million people who die annually from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Although the risk of dying depends on the type of procedure, researchers say 50 per cent of these deaths happen in low- and middle-income countries, where surgery is less accessible.

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“The finding that more people die each year within 30 days of 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,” said study co-author and Western University professor Janet Martin.

The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery identified that 313 million surgeries are performed each year, but little is known about the global quality of the procedures. It says post-op death rates are only available for 29 countries.

This study was published in a research letter to the Lancet.

In it, researchers also note that low- to middle-income countries also have significant unmet needs for surgery — but if countries start performing all the needed surgeries before adding adequate safety and quality measures, more people will be at risk of dying. They say this could increase the number of people dying after surgery to 6.1 million from 4.2 million.

Martin leads a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre that is studying access to safe surgery, anesthesia, and perioperative care. The team, at Western University’s Schulich Medicine and Dentistry, is looking at the gaps in resources, infrastructure and training in countries around the globe to develop evidence-based priorities toward universal safe and effective essential surgery and anesthesia.

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Western University says 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.

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