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November 20, 2023

Using Online Obituaries for Public Health Surveillance

Event Series: Global Health Security Seminars

Using Online Obituaries for Public Health Surveillance

Between 2020 and 2021, death rates due to COVID-19 grew exponentially worldwide. In many countries, real-time data has driven decision-making regarding shutdowns, states of emergency, re-openings, and public health and economic policies. Local and national governments have sometimes stopped data publication and shut down disease surveillance when trust in reporting eroded or political interests did not align with data reports. These data gaps can lead to poorly informed decisions, resource misallocation, and increases in incidence rates when severity has been downplayed. Such cases would benefit from portable, decentralized, and affordable disease monitoring procedures that depend little on government infrastructure or support.

In this seminar, Maria Alva, assistant professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at Georgetown University, shared work investigating the feasibility and accuracy of using openly available online obituary data to monitor mortality. The research measures these novel data’s reliability compared to death certificate records by using death certificates from Washington, DC, as proof of concept. The analysis of the obituary data and its comparison to death certificates proves promising because online data can track similar patterns of sudden spikes in officially recorded deaths.

This event was open to all Georgetown University faculty, students, staff, and affiliates.

This event was co-sponsored by the Center for Global Health Science and Security, the School of Health’s Department of Health Management and Policy, and the Global Health Institute.


Maria Alva is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at Georgetown University, where she is also affiliated with the Massive Data Institute in the McCourt School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on impact evaluations of health care interventions and the cost-effectiveness of preventive decisions. She works primarily in the area of behavioral health and noncommunicable diseases. Alva completed her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, where her research focused on economic analyses of the United Kingdom Prospective Diabetes Study—a landmark trial of policies to improve the management of people with type 2 diabetes. Before joining Georgetown, Alva worked as a senior research associate at IMPAQ International and as a health economist in the division of public health and policy research at RTI International.