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DOI: 10.1101/2022.09.21.22280219

Excess death estimates from multiverse analysis in 2009-2021

M.Levitt F. Zonta J. Ioannidis
Excess death estimates have great value in public health, but they can be sensitive to analytical choices. Here we propose a multiverse analysis approach that considers all possible different time periods for defining the reference baseline and a range of 1 to 4 years for the projected time period for which excess deaths are calculated. We used data from the Human Mortality Database on 33 countries with detailed age-stratified death information on an annual basis during the period 2009-2021. The use of different time periods for reference baseline led to large variability in the absolute magnitude of the exact excess death estimates. However, the relative ranking of different countries compared to others for specific years remained largely unaltered. The relative ranking of different years for the specific country was also largely independent of baseline. Averaging across all possible analyses, distinct time patterns were discerned across different countries. Countries had declines between 2009 and 2019, but the steepness of the decline varied markedly. There were also large differences across countries on whether the COVID-19 pandemic years 2020-2021 resulted in an increase of excess deaths and by how much. Consideration of longer projected time windows resulted in substantial shrinking of the excess deaths in many, but not all countries. Multiverse analysis of excess deaths over long periods of interest can offer a more unbiased approach to understand comparative mortality trends across different countries, the range of uncertainty around estimates, and the nature of observed mortality peaks.