“If you want to help the living, count the dead,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha, a recent winner of the Connaught Global Challenge Award for his Million Death Study.

Jha, a Professor of Epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has been counting deaths in India since 2002. After almost two decades of research he is finally nearing his million-death goal.

More than 80 per cent of deaths in low- and middle-income countries occur at home and without proper medical diagnoses. As a result, many of the world’s deaths are not properly documented.

The Million Death Study attempts to alleviate these discrepancies between global death data and the actual number of deaths that occur annually. The project is led by Jha who is also the founding director of the Centre for Global Health Research, a non-profit organization co-sponsored St. Michael’s Hospital and U of T.

The project has recently received $250,000 of funding from the Connaught Global Challenge Award to expand their study. The award, supported by the Connaught Fund, strives to support interdisciplinary research that helps heighten U of T’s global impact.

Data on deaths are collected through what Jha calls “verbal autopsies” — personal accounts of death gathered through interviews with those close to the deceased. Those death records are then reviewed by local doctors who assign a likely cause of death based on the given information.

The study brings together researchers in demography, epidemiology, computer science, geography, geospatial science, economics, and business to tackle a common problem. “The Connaught helps us… bring together people who don’t normally think about [these] problems… in medicine and public health,” explained Jha.

The interdisciplinary nature of the project helps the team make their methods cheaper, faster, and more accessible to a larger demographic. “We want to make it simpler so more countries can adopt this approach,” said Jha.

While the project is expected to reach its million-death goal in the near future, India is just the beginning. There are initiatives in place to expand the project to Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone.

Jha intends to build and expand this method of recording death throughout the next few decades. “Hopefully it will become routine [and] every country will have these kinds of systems,” he said.

However, the study is not limited to just low- and middle-income countries where death records are inadequate. Although deaths in Canada are documented with medical certificates that include important information like cause of death and contributory risk factors, that data is not used systematically, according to Jha.

“The second part of [this study] is not creating new data, but using existing data in high-income countries to better understand the causes of death, the patterns, the risk factors, [and] the importance of key drivers of the epidemic.” Jha hopes that the project will help change our global understanding of death and how we can use it to help the living.

Jha and his team are also working towards making the data from the study accessible to all U of T students. He believes that allowing students to play with this type of data in an unrestricted manner will result in more innovations and insights.

Moving beyond the Million Death Study, Jha hopes to eventually build a what he calls a “death institute” in Canada. The multidisciplinary institute will focus on using mortality statistics to create new systems to help the living.

“A lot more countries are sending people to train [in Canada and] learn about how to set up these systems” said Jha. “So that’s the idea — do a death institute.”