Monday, November 16, 2009

Statistics: How to find them

Statistics, though they numb the imagination, can serve as a flight-at-40,000-feet and give us some sense of the scope of the problem. Here is a website from which to embark:

WHOSIS, the World Health Organization Statistical Information System. Easy to use; searchable by one or more country at a time. Covers 193 member states. All the data you could want is here, though not all of it is recent. Another helpful website that works a little differently from WHOSIS is at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which maintains a Global Health Facts site.

In a couple of minutes of playing with WHOSIS, I learned that:

* As of 2006, only 8% of HIV-positive Armenians received antiretrovirals.
* Thirteen per cent of Cameroonian children under age 5 sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets. (Each net costs about $10.00. Click here if you feel like donating one.)
* Fewer than 1 in 5 Haitians has "access to sanitation" (that is, they can poop in a functioning toilet).

Can you imagine? Probably not. Stats like these are not merely imcomprehensible; they can even annoy the reader. But I'm not sure we need to experience them emotionally. If one is too immersed in others' miseries, if one attempts to grasp the enormity of the problem, there's a risk of throwing up one's hands, of turning away. No one person can own these problems. But no one may ethically ignore them, either. "You are not required to complete the task," said one sage, "yet you are not free to withdraw from it."

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