Trends in the prevalence and incidence of orphanhood in children and adolescents <20 years in rural KwaZulu-Natal South Africa, 2000-2014

Gabriela Mejia-Pailles, Ann Berrington, Nuala McGrath, Victoria Hosegood - PLoS ONE



In South Africa, large increases in early adult mortality during the 1990s and early 2000s have reversed since public HIV treatment rollout in 2004. In a rural population in KwaZulu-Natal, we investigate trends in parental mortality and orphanhood from 2000–2014.


Using longitudinal demographic surveillance data for a population of approximately 90,000, we calculated annual incidence and prevalence of maternal, paternal and double orphanhood in children and adolescents (<20 years) and, overall and cause-specific mortality of parents by age.


The proportion of children and adolescents (<20 years) for whom one or both parents had died rose from 26% in 2000 to peak at 36% in 2010, followed by a decline to 32% in 2014. The burden of orphanhood remains high especially in the oldest age group: in 2014, 53% of adolescents 15–19 years had experienced the death of one or both parents. In all age groups and years, paternal orphan prevalence was three-five times higher than maternal orphan prevalence. Maternal and paternal orphan incidence peaked in 2005 at 17 and 27 per 1,000 person years respectively (<20 years) before declining by half through 2014. The leading cause of parental death throughout the period, HIV/AIDS and TB cause-specific mortality rates declined substantially in mothers and fathers from 2007 and 2009 respectively.


The survival of parents with children and adolescents <20 years has improved in tandem with earlier initiation and higher coverage of HIV treatment. However, comparatively high levels of parental deaths persist in this rural population in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly among fathers. Community-level surveillance to estimate levels of orphanhood remains important for monitoring and evaluation of targeted state welfare support for orphans and their guardians.