© 2019 The Author(s). Background Half of all under-5 deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Reducing child mortality requires understanding of the modifiable factors that contribute to death. Social autopsies collect information about place of death, care-seeking and care-provision, but this has not been pooled to learn wider lessons. We therefore undertook a systematic review to collect, evaluate, map, and pool all the available evidence for sub-Saharan Africa. Methods We searched PubMed, Embase, Global Health, the Cochrane Library and grey literature for studies relating to under-5 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa with information on place of death and/or care-seeking during a child' final illness. We assessed study quality with a modified Axis tool. We pooled proportions using random effects meta-analysis for place of death and for each stage of the Pathways to Survival framework. Pre-specified subgroup analysis included age group, national income and user-fee policy. We explored heterogeneity with meta-regression. Our protocol was published prospectively (CRD42018111484). Results We included 34 studies from 17 countries. Approximately half of the children died at home, irrespective of age. More children died at home in settings with user-fees (69.1%, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 56.2-80.6, I2 = 98.4%) compared to settings without user-fees (43.8%, 95% CI = 34.3-53.5, 2 = 96.7%). Signs of illness were present in over 95% of children but care-seeking differed by age. 40.1% of neonates (95% CI = 20.7-61.3, 2 = 98.0%) died without receiving any care, compared to 6.4% of older children (95% CI = 4.2%-9.0%, I2 = 90.6%). Care-seeking outside the home was less common in neonatal deaths (50.5%, 95% CI = 35.6-65.3, I2 = 98.3%) compared to infants and young children (82.4%, 95% CI = 79.4%-85.2%, 2 = 87.5%). In both age groups, most children were taken for formal care. Healthcare facilities discharged 69.6% of infants and young children who arrived alive (95% CI = 59.6-78.7, I2 = 95.5%), of whom only 34.9% were referred for further care (95% CI = 15.1-57.9, I2 = 98.7%). Conclusions Despite similar distributions in place of death for neonates and infants and young children, care-seeking behaviour differed by age groups. Poor illness recognition is implicated in neonatal deaths, but death despite care-seeking implies inadequate quality care and referral for older children. Understanding such care-seeking patterns enables targeted interventions to reduce under-5 mortality across the region.
Journal of Global Health