Background: Effective interventions require evidence on how individual causal pathways jointly determine disease. Based on the concept of systems epidemiology, this paper develops Diagram-based Analysis of Causal Systems (DACS) as an approach to analyze complex systems, and applies it by examining the contributions of proximal and distal determinants of childhood acute lower respiratory infections (ALRI) in sub-Saharan Africa. Results: Diagram-based Analysis of Causal Systems combines the use of causal diagrams with multiple routinely available data sources, using a variety of statistical techniques. In a step-by-step process, the causal diagram evolves from conceptual based on a priori knowledge and assumptions, through operational informed by data availability which then undergoes empirical testing, to integrated which synthesizes information from multiple datasets. In our application, we apply different regression techniques to Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) datasets for Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya and Namibia and a pooled World Health Survey (WHS) dataset for sixteen African countries. Explicit strategies are employed to make decisions transparent about the inclusion/omission of arrows, the sign and strength of the relationships and homogeneity/heterogeneity across settings.Findings about the current state of evidence on the complex web of socio-economic, environmental, behavioral and healthcare factors influencing childhood ALRI, based on DHS and WHS data, are summarized in an integrated causal diagram. Notably, solid fuel use is structured by socio-economic factors and increases the risk of childhood ALRI mortality. Conclusions: Diagram-based Analysis of Causal Systems is a means of organizing the current state of knowledge about a specific area of research, and a framework for integrating statistical analyses across a whole system. This partly a priori approach is explicit about causal assumptions guiding the analysis and about researcher judgment, and wrong assumptions can be reversed following empirical testing. This approach is well-suited to dealing with complex systems, in particular where data are scarce. © 2013 Rehfuess et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
Rehfuess, E. A., Best, N., Briggs, D. J., & Joffe, M. (2013). Diagram-based Analysis of Causal Systems (DACS): Elucidating inter-relationships between determinants of acute lower respiratory infections among children in sub-Saharan Africa. Emerging Themes in Epidemiology, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-7622-10-13