According to the best estimates of the United Nations and other agencies, our world's population is on the point of exceeding 7 billion for the first time - more than a doubling of population in my lifetime. But although we've a fairly good idea of how many people there are in the world, we still have frighteningly little information about many of those 7 billion, particularly the poorer ones.
During the past week I've been at the international conference of the INDEPTH Network in Maputo, Mozambique. INDEPTH is a unique organisation, run by African and Asian population health scientists to try and fill in some of the huge gaps in the world's data map. The Network does this through more than 40 local population surveillance sites across Africa, Asia and Oceania, which between them continuously follow in detail the lives of more than three million people. This is an amazing resource - given the general lack of data - allowing detailed scientific studies whose results can be generalised to some of the world's information holes. For example, you may have heard of the recent malaria vaccine breakthrough, in which four INDEPTH sites were involved.
All of us who work with INDEPTH hope that, in the long term, the Network will become redundant - when all the world's people are properly counted. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said "To be counted is to become visible... make each and every person count". I suggested in a recent Lancet article that we might be in a different place by now if the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had included an additional component "MDG0: increase coverage of individual registration beyond 95%". Not least we might then know how the world is doing in progress towards the MDGs. Meanwhile, though, the world desperately needs data and results like those produced by the INDEPTH Network to understand what is really happening to the human race as population and health status changes - INDEPTH is in an ideal position to measure MDG progress.
INDEPTH's meeting in Mozambique was inaugurated by the country's President, HE Armando Guebuza, seen here to the right of INDEPTH's Executive Director, Dr. Osman Sankoh, at the opening session. Great to see that the Republic of Mozambique takes these issues seriously! Prof. Hans Rosling from gapminder.org pointed out that two health districts in which he had worked, in Sweden and Mozambique, each had about 300,000 inhabitants. The differences were that in the Swedish case there were 100 times more doctors and 100 times less childhood deaths than in the Mozambican case - a stark contrast straight from his personal experience.
One of INDEPTH's big challenges is to build human capacity for managing and analysing the vast amounts of data generated across the Network. One way to encourage this is a regular competition among young scientists from the Network for the best scientific poster presentation. This time the winner was Carolyne Ndila from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust centre in Kilifi, Kenya, for an excellent poster on determining which children in the site had died of sickle-cell disease. Sickle-cell disease is a serious genetic disorder which occurs mainly in malaria-endemic areas and causes many childhood deaths, but which often goes unrecorded. Congratulations to Carolyne and colleagues for shedding light on this important public health issue!
So - as we welcome the 7 billionth human being into today's world - let's keep an eye on who is counting, and make sure it is done adequately on a worldwide basis.