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Leading Causes of Death in Africa

Julie Kirk
African woman and child

HIV/AIDS and malaria are no longer the leading causes of death in Africa. According to recent data on global death statistics, lower respiratory tract infections have now moved into the top spot.

Top Leading Causes of Death in Africa

It has been found that lifestyle diseases are now the leading cause of death in Africa which includes:

Lower Respiratory Tract Infections

The number one cause of death in Africa is lower respiratory tract infections. Lower respiratory infections affect the lungs and airways. The most common types of these infections are pneumonia and bronchitis which can originate from different viruses, bacteria and even fungi and parasites. They are spread in several ways. If you sneeze or a cough, tiny droplets of fluid containing the virus can be breathed in by another person who can then become infected. The infectious virus can also be spread by indirect contact when an infected person touches a surface or object and another person then touches that same area. Since regular hand washing and hand sanitizers are not an option in Africa, infectious virus' can be passed easily, quickly and frequently.


HIV/AIDS is now in the number two position. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) inhibits the body's defense against infections by basically disabling the immune system. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the more severe stage of the disease. Depending on the person infected, AIDS can develop in a 2 to 15-year range after the initial HIV diagnosis. HIV/AIDS can be contracted through various ways. The most common way it is spread is through sexual contact. It can also be contracted through a blood transfusion or using a shared needle of an infected person.

Diarrheal Diseases

The passing of three or more loose or liquid stools per day is diarrheal disease. This is the third leading cause of death in Africa. It is caused by viral, bacterial or parasitic infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is known to occur due to unsafe water, poor sanitation, and insufficient hygiene. Diarrheal diseases have decreased slightly over the years.


The next leading cause of death is stroke. Over the past five years, death by stroke has increased in Africa. A stroke occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to an area of the brain caused by a blood clot or a brain bleed which ultimately deprives the body of oxygen.

Ischemic Heart Disease

Ischemic heart disease, or a heart attack as it's more commonly known, is the next leading cause of death in Africa. This is caused by a narrowing of the arteries due to a build-up of plaque causing less oxygen to reach the various portions of the heart. When the artery becomes completely blocked, the heart becomes severely damaged and death will occur. In Africa, death by heart attack has risen slightly.


Tuberculosis is the next on the list. Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious bacterial infection that affects the lungs. TB is caused by bacteria and is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and tiny droplets are released into the air. Typical symptoms of TB include cough, weight loss, night sweats, and fever.


Malaria has dropped significantly to the seventh leading cause of death in Africa. Malaria is a serious, life-threatening disease. An infected person will get flu-like symptoms with high fevers, sweating, and chills. Malaria is caused by a parasite that is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.

Number One Cause of Death Among Children

The number one cause of death among children in Africa will depend on the child's age.

  • Most neonatal (newborn and up to one-month-old) deaths are caused by preterm birth, complications at birth and infections.
  • Most deaths of a child after the neonatal stage through five-years-old are caused by pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria.
  • In about 45% of child deaths, malnutrition is an underlying contributing factor which makes a child more susceptible to various diseases.
  • About 45% of child deaths occur during the neonatal period and the highest risk of death for a child is in the first 28 days of life.
  • These early child deaths are largely due to conditions that are preventable or treatable.

Number of Deaths in Africa

In 2015, the UN estimated that:

  • In a population of about one billion people, there were 9.2 million deaths from all causes in Africa.
  • About 5.9 million of those deaths were children under the age of five.
  • Child mortality had decreased by nearly two thirds in Africa over the past 25 years.
  • Overall life expectancy in Africa had increased by nearly 10 years since 1990.

What the Future Holds

Increasing education to the population is key to help the people of Africa better understand and learn how to prevent contracting or spreading these illnesses and diseases. It is also necessary for them to have access to better medical care which can ultimately help if a disease is contracted and treatment is needed.

Leading Causes of Death in Africa