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Original Contribution |

Fatality Trends in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, 1948-1998 FREE

Benjamin Seet, FRCS, MPH; Gilbert M. Burnham, MD, PhD
[+] Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, Baltimore, Md (Drs Seet and Burnham); Dr Seet was formerly with the Medical Support Unit, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations.


JAMA. 2000;284(5):598-603. doi:10.1001/jama.284.5.598.
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Published online

Context The rising number of deaths among United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces after the Cold War has made some troop-contributing countries hesitant to participate in peacekeeping operations. While the number and scale of missions have increased, no data have demonstrated a parallel increase in risks to peacekeepers.

Objective To determine the association of characteristics of UN peacekeeping operations with risks and mortality rates among UN peacekeeping forces in both the Cold War and post-Cold War periods.

Design, Setting, and Participants Descriptive analysis of 1559 personnel deaths during 49 UN peacekeeping missions from 1948-1998 based on the casualty database maintained by Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UN Headquarters.

Main Outcome Measures Number and percentage of deaths by circumstance, total crude death rate, and crude death rate and relative risk of death by circumstance (hostile acts, unintentional violence, and illness or other causes) and time period (Cold War vs post–Cold War), geographic region, and nature of peacekeeping response; and regression analysis of mission variables (strength, duration, and humanitarian mandate) associated with total number of deaths.

Results More deaths have occurred among UN peacekeeping forces in the past decade alone than in the previous 40 years of UN peacekeeping (807 vs 752), but crude death rates did not differ significantly by time period (Cold War vs post–Cold War, 21.8 vs 21.2 deaths per 10,000 person-years; P = .58), level of peacekeeping response, or for geographic regions other than East Europe and Central America, where rates were lower (P<.001 for both regions). Unintentional violence accounted for 41.2% of deaths, followed by hostile acts (36.1%), and illness or other causes (22.7%). Deaths from hostile acts increased after the Cold War (relative risk [RR] 1.51; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.22-1.88), while rates for deaths caused by unintentional violence decreased (RR, 0.79; 95% CI, 0.67-0.94) but remain high, particularly in the Middle East and Asia (RR, 1.39; 95% CI, 1.15-1.69). Regression analysis showed a significant association between number of deaths and the strength (P<.001) and duration (P<.001) of a peacekeeping mission.

Conclusion The increase in number of deaths among UN peacekeeping personnel since 1990 can be attributed to the increased number and scale of missions after the Cold War rather than increased RR of death. Post–Cold War peacekeeping personnel have a higher risk of dying from hostile acts in missions where more force is required. In missions providing or facilitating humanitarian assistance, both the RR of deaths from all causes and deaths from hostile acts are increased.

When United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Operations was awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, paid tribute to the 733 "blue helmets" who had lost their lives over 40 years "in the service of peace."1 Just 1 decade later, the total number of peacekeepers killed in this "grand experiment, in which soldiers were used as a catalyst of peace, rather than as instruments of war,"2 had more than doubled, exceeding 1500 by the fiftieth anniversary of UN Peacekeeping Operations in 1998.3 This mirrored the rise in casualties and fatalities reported among field workers from different humanitarian organizations.46

Two reasons have been given for this large increase in peacekeeping fatalities. First, the increase in number and scale of peacekeeping operations conducted since the end of the Cold War710; and second, the changes in nature and characteristics of peacekeeping missions that have made them more dangerous with higher fatality risks.1012

While there are increased concerns voiced for the safety of UN peacekeepers, little is known about actual risks and any changes in these over time. By early 2000, there were more than 30,000 uniformed and civilian UN personnel deployed in 17 peacekeeping missions around the globe.8 We undertook this study of peacekeeper deaths to assess trends, factors, and risks.

Study Design

Fatality data for all reported deaths from UN peacekeeping missions from 1948 to August 1998 were obtained from the casualty database maintained by the Situation Center and the Medical Support Unit, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, New York, NY.

Casualty data were based on individual reports submitted by the field mission headquarters within 24 hours of each incident, a requirement for all mission-related fatalities, serious injuries, and illnesses involving UN personnel, both international and local.13 Deaths among locally contracted civilian staff may have been underreported. Aggregated data available included fatality counts by individual missions and the number of deaths for each incident category as initially reported. Mission-related variables were obtained from official records and publications of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.8,14 Independent variables that were assessed were circumstances and time period (before or after 1990) of death, geographic region of mission, and level and duration of peacekeeping response.

Circumstances of Death. Hostile acts were defined as deaths from intentional violence of political, criminal, or of undetermined hostile origin; the UN classification for deaths due to accidents was defined as deaths from unintentional violence of all causes; and illness and other causes as deaths from disease, "natural causes," and unknown causes.

Time Period. 1990 was arbitrarily taken to divide the Cold War and post–Cold War periods. For missions that extended across this time line, the assumption was made that distribution of deaths was uniform throughout the entire mission duration. The 1960 United Nations Mission in Congo (ONUC) has been described as controversial and atypical of missions conducted in the Cold War period because nearly 20,000 personnel were deployed in direct military operations and the highest number of fatalities of any UN mission were sustained (250 reported deaths).15 Because ONUC resembled a peace enforcement operation more typical of the post–Cold War period than the traditional peacekeeping missions of the Cold War period, it has been excluded from Cold War vs post-Cold War analysis.

Geographic Region. For analysis, peacekeeping operations were grouped as Africa, Eastern Europe, Middle East (including Cyprus), Asia, and Central America.

Level, Strength, and Duration of Peacekeeping Response. Level 1 response comprises traditional peacekeeping missions involving only unarmed military observers or civilian police monitors.16 Level 2 responses encompass both traditional and multidisciplinary missions deploying armed military units, for example, in operations like interposition of peacekeeping forces between belligerent forces or their preventive deployment against escalation of hostilities.16 Level 3 response (peace enforcement) comprises operations conducted with a mandate authorizing use of all measures necessary, including military force, to maintain or restore international peace and security in accordance with Article 42, Chapter VII, of the UN Charter.16,17 When the mission level changed as a result of amendments to the mandate, the higher level was used. A humanitarian mandate is defined as the specific task given to peacekeeping missions to provide or to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, which is common in complex humanitarian emergencies occurring in unstable situations with poor security. Strength of mission was determined by number of troops. Duration of mission was measured from first deployment of all UN peacekeeping personnel or until their replacement by a new UN peacekeeping mission under a separate mandate of the UN Security Council or departure of all troops.

Data Analysis

The actual strength of each peacekeeping mission varied according to the security situation, amendments to mission mandates, and different mission phases, with fewer peacekeepers deployed during the build-up and liquidation phases. Fatality rates in person-years were estimated for each mission, based on the denominator derived from the product of the official mission strength and total mission duration. For ongoing missions, strength as of August 1998 was used. United Nations electoral monitors were excluded from the denominator, as they were generally deployed for short periods, often less than a month. Data for locally contracted civilian staff were unreliable and excluded from analysis.

Relative risks (RRs) of death were calculated and presented at the 95% confidence interval (CI), and the independent effects of selected mission variables on the number of deaths were analyzed using multiple linear regression models on Intercooled Stata, version 6.0 (Stata Corporation, College Station, Tex). Confidence intervals were determined for RRs to indicate the level of precision within sample comparisons but not for the rates that were calculated for the total number of peacekeepers, which represent the universe of a unique sample.

We analyzed 1559 deaths from 49 UN peacekeeping missions. A chronological list of all missions up to August 1998, including estimated mission-specific fatality rates, is presented in Table 1. A total of 22 deaths (1.4%) was excluded from analysis because they involved UN headquarters personnel, who were not part of the peacekeeping force, or did not occur in peacekeeping operations. In 16 peacekeeping missions, there were no reported deaths. The highest number of deaths occurred in Congo (ONUC, 250 deaths), Lebanon (UN Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL], 228 deaths) and former Yugoslavia (UN Protection Force [UNPROFOR], 212 deaths). The highest death rates were in Guatemala (UN Human Rights Verification Mission in Guatemala [MINUGUA]; death rate, 379.94) and Tajikistan (UN Mission of Observers in Tajikistan [UNMOT]; death rate, 296.30); however, the total numbers involved in these 2 missions were small (188 and 72, respectively), and the results may not be representative.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Number and Rate of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Fatalities by Mission as of August 1998*

The crude and circumstance-specific death rates and RRs of death by mission variable are summarized in Table 2. The crude death rate from all causes was 24.0 per 10,000 person-years. Unintentional violence was the most common cause of death and accounted for 41.2% of deaths, followed by deaths from hostile acts (36.1%) and illness or other causes (22.7%).

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Fatality Rates in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations by Circumstances of Death and Mission Characteristics, 1948-1998*

Crude death rates between the Cold War and post–Cold War periods did not differ significantly. However, the RR of dying from hostile acts increased 1.51 times (95% CI, 1.22-1.88; P<.001), with hostile acts accounting for 24.1% of all deaths during the Cold War and 37.6% of all deaths in the post–Cold War period. The RR of dying from unintentional violence decreased 0.79 times (95% CI, 0.67-0.94; P = .01) in the post-Cold War period, while the risk of dying from illness and other causes remained the same (Table 2).

The largest proportion of deaths occurred in the Middle East (41.6%) and Africa (34.5%). Of the 10 peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, 7 were among the longest conducted by the UN, with a median duration of 9.1 years (range, 0.6-50.3 years) compared with 2.1 years for all other missions. Larger numbers of deaths were observed for these extended missions, although the rates were not necessarily higher because deaths were distributed over longer periods. For example, the missions in Cyprus (UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus [UNFICYP]: duration, 36 years) and Lebanon (UN Interim Force in Lebanon [UNIFIL]: duration, 21 years) sustained a total of 168 and 228 fatalities, respectively.

There have been more UN peacekeeping missions in Africa than in any other region (16 out of a total of 49), with 5 of the 10 largest peacekeeping forces deployed here. The median strength is 1240 persons per mission (range, 15-30,800) vs 1042 for all other missions. There were no significant differences in crude death rates among Africa, Middle East, and Asia. However, Africa had the highest death rate from hostile acts, which was twice as great as in other regions. The lowest death rates from hostile acts were in Central America, with no reported deaths, although these missions were generally smaller in scale and shorter in duration.

There were no significant differences in crude death rates among different levels of peacekeeping response. However, the RR of dying from hostile acts was more than twice as great for level 3 response (peace enforcement) compared with a level 1 or 2 response. The presence of a mandate to provide or to facilitate humanitarian assistance increased RR of death 1.40 times (95% CI, 1.24-1.61; P<.001), and increased RRs of dying from hostile acts 2.20 times (95% CI, 1.73-2.84; P<.001) and from illness 1.37 times (95% CI, 1.05-1.80; P = .02).

The results of regression analysis modeling are shown in Table 3. A significant positive correlation was found between the total number of deaths and both the strength and duration of a peacekeeping mission. If all other independent variables were held constant, an increase of 5.27 deaths (95% CI, 3.58-6.95; P<.001) would be anticipated for every 1000 personnel deployed and an increase of 2.12 deaths (95% CI, 1.05-3.19; P<.001) for each additional mission year. After accounting for other variables, regression analysis showed no significant correlation between the number of deaths and the mission area, level of peacekeeping response, or the presence of a humanitarian mandate.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 3. Regression Analysis of Modeling Mission Variables Associated With Total Number of Deaths in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations*

We found that while there were more deaths among UN peacekeeping personnel in the post–Cold War decade compared with the previous 40 years of peacekeeping operations, there was no significant increase in the crude death rate. This is contrary to the general perception that post–Cold War missions have become more risky for peacekeepers.12,18 The increased number of deaths is largely accounted for by increases in number and scale of UN peacekeeping operations. In the 4 decades between 1948-1989, the UN undertook 18 peacekeeping missions, of which 9 (50%) comprised more than 1000 persons. In the past decade alone, there were 31 missions, of which 17 (55%) comprised more than 1000 persons.8,14 At the peak of peacekeeping activities in 1993, there were more than 80,000 deployed military and civilian personnel, with more than 38,000 peacekeepers in former Yugoslavia alone.8 In contrast, the only ambitious peacekeeping operation undertaken during the Cold War was in Congo from 1960-1964 (UNOC).15 All other missions in that period were much smaller in scale.

There were no significant differences in crude death rates among different levels of peacekeeping response and among most mission areas, with the exception of East Europe and Central America, where rates were lower. This does not confirm the beliefs of military planners that limited operations carry higher casualty rates than those in which a larger decisive force is employed.19,20 While this finding might be confounded by the greater likelihood of deploying large peacekeeping forces in more dangerous missions, it suggests that the overall risk of death for individual peacekeepers may not vary with differences in these mission variables. It might be that overall peacekeeping fatalities could be reduced by deploying a smaller number of well-trained peacekeepers, rather than larger multinational forces that include military units from countries with limited experience in complex peace support operations.21

Peacekeeping missions with a mandate to provide or facilitate humanitarian assistance were associated with higher crude death rates and with greater risks of dying from hostile acts and illness, which may reflect the instability and poorer conditions encountered.1012 However, in the regression analysis model, the presence of a humanitarian assistance mandate does not predict an increase in the number of deaths. Overall, unintentional violence remained the most common cause of death, but our findings showed that there has been a significant decrease over time in the RR of dying from unintentional violence. This might be explained by better preventive measures, as well as improved medical support for casualties.13,22

An alarming trend is the higher risk of death from hostile acts after the Cold War. Risk factors include missions in Africa, level 3 (peace enforcement) operations, and missions with a humanitarian assistance mandate. This may have resulted from the increasing use by the UN of a military approach to address complex political emergencies, a process referred to as "military humanitarianism," the key difference being the level of force and offense employed.1012 In peace enforcement, peacekeepers are often deployed in the midst of civil war between parties that had not all consented to intervention and, with no peace to keep, find themselves drawn into the conflict.12,23 While authorized to use "all means necessary" to achieve its mandate,17 strict rules of engagement often leave peacekeepers at a disadvantage in coping with hostile actions directed against them.24 Deaths occurring in such situations have received high political and media attention, examples being the missions in Somalia (UN Operation in Somalia [UNOSOM]) and Rwanda (UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda [UNAMIR]). Such attention has led the UN and various troop-contributing countries to review their peacekeeping commitments and to set new conditions for involvement in future operations.25,26 Crude death rates for these 2 missions, however, were not significantly higher than for other missions that continue to receive broad international support.

There are no comparable data for deaths among civilian humanitarian workers. There are similar perceptions of increasing numbers of deaths and increased risks.46,27 Many humanitarian organizations have only recently begun to document staff deaths in detail and to keep accurate records of field staff strength, data that are needed to provide denominators for risk calculations.4 Observational studies and analysis of secular trends over time conventionally have been used to study warfare28,29 and can be useful in tracking civilian humanitarian deaths as well. Because of the dynamic nature of current conflicts, with frequent exacerbations and remissions, mortality trends among both civilian humanitarian workers and peacekeeping forces are likely to shift as security and other risk factors change. This points to the need for continuous casualty and mortality surveillance for all parties striving to bring relief and stability to the chaos that will continue to characterize the post–Cold War era in many parts of the world.

The number of deaths in UN peacekeeping missions in the post–Cold War decade was 807, compared with 752 in the previous 40 years. However, there has been no significant rise in crude death rates, with the increase in numbers of deaths largely explained by the UN's greater commitment of military forces to such operations. Extended missions and large-scale peace-enforcement operations accounted for the largest number of fatalities, although the individual risks of dying in these missions were generally not greater. There was an increased RR of dying from hostile acts after the Cold War, with risk factors including missions in Africa, level 3 (peace enforcement) operations, and missions with a humanitarian mandate. There was a decreased risk of death from unintentional violence, and no differences in death rates from illness and other causes. This study provides a simple model for estimating death rates in UN peacekeeping operations.

Lewis P. UN chief warns of cost of peace.  New York Times.December 11, 1988;A4.
Urquhart B. This Nobel was really earned [editorial].  Washington Post.December 10, 1988;A27.
Annan K. Statement by the United Nations Secretary-General before the special commemorative meeting of the General Assembly honoring 50 years of peacekeeping. United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6732PKO/74; October 6, 1998.
Sheik M, Gutierrez M, Bolton P, Spiegel P, Thieren M, Burnham G. Deaths of 382 humanitarian workers between 1985-1998.  BMJ.In press.
 Thoughts for safety of aid workers in dangerous places [editorial].  Lancet.1999;354:609.
Schouten EJ, Borgdoff MW. Increased mortality among Dutch development workers.  BMJ.1995;311:1342-1344.
Boutros-Ghali B. An Agenda for PeaceNew York, NY: United Nations; 1992.
United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  UN Peacekeeping OperationsAvailable at: http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/. Accessed February 12, 2000.
McClure RL, Orlov M. Is the UN peacekeeping role in eclipse?  Parameters.1999;29:96-105.
Slim H. Military humanitarianism and the new peacekeeping: an agenda for peace?  J Humanitarian Assistance [serial online].Available at: http://www-jha.sps.cam.ac.uk/a/a015.htm (posted September 22, 1995). Accessed November 30, 1999.
Wentges JT. Force, function and phase: three dimensions of UN peacekeeping.  Int Peacekeeping.1998;5:58-77.
Goulding M. The use of force by the United Nations.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;3:1-18.
 Medical Support Manual for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations . 2nd ed. New York, NY: United Nations Dept of Peacekeeping Operations; 1999.
 The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peacekeeping . New York, NY: Dept of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations; 1997.
James A. The Congo controversies.  Int Peacekeeping.1994;1:44-58.
Mackinlay J. A Guide to Peace Support OperationsProvidence, RI: Thomas J Watson Jr Institute for International Studies, Brown University; 1996.
 Charter of the United Nations. New York, NY: Department of Public Information, United Nations; 1997.
Katz LM. Peace comes up against harsh reality: the rules of engagement may change.  USA Today.February 1, 1993;A11.
Burkle FM. Complex humanitarian emergencies, I: concept and participants.  Prehospital Disaster Med.1995;10:36-42.
Dennehy EJ, Doll WJ, Harper GP. A Blue Helmet Combat ForceWashington, DC: John F Kennedy School of Government; 1993. National Security Program Policy Analysis Paper 93-101.
Szayna TS, Niblack P, O'Malley W. Assessing armed forces' deficiencies for peace operations: a methodology.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;3:77-91.
Seet B. Levels of medical support for United Nations peacekeeping operations.  Mil Med.1999;164:451-456.
Annan K. Peacekeeping, military intervention and national sovereignty in internal armed conflict. In: Moore J, ed. Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention. Lanham, Md: Rowmand & Littlefield; 1998:55-69.
 Multidisciplinary Peacekeeping: Lessons from Recent Experience . New York, NY: United Nations, Dept of Peacekeeping Operations; 1998.
Baker JH. Policy challenges of UN peace operations.  Parameters.1994;24:13-26.
Bratt D. Assessing the success of UN peacekeeping operations.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;4:64-81.
Frame JD, Lange WR, Frankenfield DL. Mortality trends of American missionaries in Africa, 1945-1985.  Am J Trop Med Hyg.1992;46:686-690.
Garfield RM, Neugut AI. Epidemiologic analysis of warfare: a historical review.  JAMA.1991;266:688-692.
Armenian HK. In wartime: options for epidemiology.  Am J Epidemiol.1986;124:28-32.

Figures

Tables

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1. Number and Rate of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations Fatalities by Mission as of August 1998*
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2. Fatality Rates in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations by Circumstances of Death and Mission Characteristics, 1948-1998*
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 3. Regression Analysis of Modeling Mission Variables Associated With Total Number of Deaths in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations*

References

Lewis P. UN chief warns of cost of peace.  New York Times.December 11, 1988;A4.
Urquhart B. This Nobel was really earned [editorial].  Washington Post.December 10, 1988;A27.
Annan K. Statement by the United Nations Secretary-General before the special commemorative meeting of the General Assembly honoring 50 years of peacekeeping. United Nations Press Release SG/SM/6732PKO/74; October 6, 1998.
Sheik M, Gutierrez M, Bolton P, Spiegel P, Thieren M, Burnham G. Deaths of 382 humanitarian workers between 1985-1998.  BMJ.In press.
 Thoughts for safety of aid workers in dangerous places [editorial].  Lancet.1999;354:609.
Schouten EJ, Borgdoff MW. Increased mortality among Dutch development workers.  BMJ.1995;311:1342-1344.
Boutros-Ghali B. An Agenda for PeaceNew York, NY: United Nations; 1992.
United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.  UN Peacekeeping OperationsAvailable at: http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/. Accessed February 12, 2000.
McClure RL, Orlov M. Is the UN peacekeeping role in eclipse?  Parameters.1999;29:96-105.
Slim H. Military humanitarianism and the new peacekeeping: an agenda for peace?  J Humanitarian Assistance [serial online].Available at: http://www-jha.sps.cam.ac.uk/a/a015.htm (posted September 22, 1995). Accessed November 30, 1999.
Wentges JT. Force, function and phase: three dimensions of UN peacekeeping.  Int Peacekeeping.1998;5:58-77.
Goulding M. The use of force by the United Nations.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;3:1-18.
 Medical Support Manual for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations . 2nd ed. New York, NY: United Nations Dept of Peacekeeping Operations; 1999.
 The Blue Helmets: A Review of United Nations Peacekeeping . New York, NY: Dept of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations; 1997.
James A. The Congo controversies.  Int Peacekeeping.1994;1:44-58.
Mackinlay J. A Guide to Peace Support OperationsProvidence, RI: Thomas J Watson Jr Institute for International Studies, Brown University; 1996.
 Charter of the United Nations. New York, NY: Department of Public Information, United Nations; 1997.
Katz LM. Peace comes up against harsh reality: the rules of engagement may change.  USA Today.February 1, 1993;A11.
Burkle FM. Complex humanitarian emergencies, I: concept and participants.  Prehospital Disaster Med.1995;10:36-42.
Dennehy EJ, Doll WJ, Harper GP. A Blue Helmet Combat ForceWashington, DC: John F Kennedy School of Government; 1993. National Security Program Policy Analysis Paper 93-101.
Szayna TS, Niblack P, O'Malley W. Assessing armed forces' deficiencies for peace operations: a methodology.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;3:77-91.
Seet B. Levels of medical support for United Nations peacekeeping operations.  Mil Med.1999;164:451-456.
Annan K. Peacekeeping, military intervention and national sovereignty in internal armed conflict. In: Moore J, ed. Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention. Lanham, Md: Rowmand & Littlefield; 1998:55-69.
 Multidisciplinary Peacekeeping: Lessons from Recent Experience . New York, NY: United Nations, Dept of Peacekeeping Operations; 1998.
Baker JH. Policy challenges of UN peace operations.  Parameters.1994;24:13-26.
Bratt D. Assessing the success of UN peacekeeping operations.  Int Peacekeeping.1996;4:64-81.
Frame JD, Lange WR, Frankenfield DL. Mortality trends of American missionaries in Africa, 1945-1985.  Am J Trop Med Hyg.1992;46:686-690.
Garfield RM, Neugut AI. Epidemiologic analysis of warfare: a historical review.  JAMA.1991;266:688-692.
Armenian HK. In wartime: options for epidemiology.  Am J Epidemiol.1986;124:28-32.

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