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Vital Statistics

Vital Statistics


Vital statistics are statistics on principal events in the life of an individual. They usually are gathered at the time of an event such as birth, marriage, the dissolution of a marriage, and death. Vital statistics are commonly compiled from records of vital events registered through offices that are organized as part of a vital registration system.

Vital registration systems are generally organized units of government. They presuppose a well-established civil administrative organization with trained officials and, most usually, local offices as well as a central one. Local offices are primarily responsible for the collection of information, while both local and central offices process the information for statistical purposes. Local offices are generally responsible for maintaining a legally valid record of the vital events. Thus they are useful to the inhabitants of the population when it becomes necessary to prove a vital event such as birth, nationality, descent, or relationship by marriage. The information-processing offices that provide vital statistics in summary form are charged with this responsibility in the interest of the formation of public policy. [See Government Statistics.]

The most accurate vital statistics are found in countries that are in an advanced state of economic development; in many of the less developed countries vital registration is still rudimentary, partial, or inaccurate. In order to be complete and reliable, vital registration must be compulsory, i.e., the law must place an obligation on defined classes of persons to notify the registering official of the occurrence of a vital event. This is usually easiest in the case of marriage, which in most countries involves a ceremony before an official of the state or the church, who will record the event, which confers a new status on the spouses. In those countries in which consensual unions are common, however, marriage statistics may give an incomplete count of the number of women who are exposed to a relatively high risk of pregnancy. Furthermore, death registration may be easier to enforce than birth registration, since the disposal of a human body is normally subject to police or sanitary regulations, which require a certificate of registration of death to be produced before the body can be disposed of.

History of vital registration . Vital registration was often preceded by parochial registration of baptisms, burials, and marriages. Parochial registration, however, tends to be incomplete, particularly in the case of births, since not all children who are born are baptized; in particular, the practice relating to the registration of babies who die before baptism may vary in different parishes. In Scandinavia, the work of registration is still carried out by the clergy, although they act as agents of the state.

The oldest systems of vital registration are found in the Scandinavian countries: Finland started in 1628 and Denmark in 1646, Norway and Sweden following in 1685 and 1686 respectively. In America, the General Court in Boston enacted a registration law for the colony of Massachusetts in 1639 which stated “that there be records kept … of the days of every marriage, birth and death of every person within this jurisdiction.” In 1644 an explicit obligation was placed on “all parents, masters of servants, executors and administrators ... to bring unto the clerk of the writs the names of such belonging to them, as shall either be born or die.” The law was tightened in 1692, when penalty clauses for failure to register were reinforced, but the system remained incomplete until the nineteenth century (Gutman 1959).

In England and Wales parochial registration of baptisms and burials began as early as 1538. John Graunt, who is generally considered the father of modern demography, utilized these data in his work Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, which was first published in 1662. An act passed in 1694 provided for the registration of births and deaths throughout the country, but it was in force for only ten years and few of the returns made under its provisions have been located. Estimates of population in England and Wales in the eighteenth century have to be based on the parochial registers, since the system of civil registration was not established until 1836. Even then, the Births and Deaths Registration Act did not lay down any penalties for failure to comply with its provision, an omission that was not repaired until 1874.

In other European countries vital registration was gradually introduced throughout the nineteenth century, and was complete in most areas by the beginning of the twentieth century. In some states, however, compulsory and complete registration was introduced very much later; in Poland, for example, it was not introduced until 1946. In Russia, vital registration was in the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities before the revolution and was only transferred to the civil power afterwards. A registration area was built up, and by 1926 it was working with reasonable efficiency in European Russia. It has gradually been extended to cover the rest of the Soviet Union.

Outside Europe, North America, and Australia, registration is more recent. Japan, the most industrialized and developed country of Asia, introduced a modern registration law in 1898, although household registers had been kept before that date. In India and Pakistan no complete and compulsory system of vital registration exists at present, although partial and incomplete systems operate in a number of areas. In Africa the position is even less satisfactory. Birth and death registration in colonial days was applied only to the population of European, and sometimes to that of Asian, origin; for the indigenous African population, registration operated in a few towns at the most and was often of questionable accuracy. In Latin America, although registration became compulsory in most areas in the nineteenth century, the systems were frequently lacking in accuracy and left much to be desired in other respects.

In the United States vital registration developed slowly. As is the case in most federal countries, the responsibility for vital registration lies with the individual states and not with the federal government. By 1859 eight states had established registration systems, and the progress was resumed after the Civil War. The federal government’s influence made itself felt after 1902, when the Bureau of the Census was established as a permanent organization. In 1903 Congress passed a law stressing the importance of a unified system of registration, and model registration laws were drafted for the guidance of individual states. A death registration area and later a birth registration area were set up, admission to which depended upon the achievement of a certain degree of completeness of registration.

Administration of vital registration . Systems of vital registration are normally administered through a network of local registration offices, each of which is responsible for a well-defined local area. It is often convenient to have the boundary of the registration district coincide with that of a local government unit. The onus of informing the registrar of the occurrence of a vital event is placed by law on a definite informant or a substitute when the informant is not available. In the case of births, the legal informant is normally the parent, although in a few countries—of which the United States is the outstanding example—responsibility rests with the attendant at the birth. Obviously, this arrangement is possible only when the vast majority of births are medically attended; and, on the whole, registration by the parent is preferred. However, the completeness of birth registration depends on other factors than the identity of the informant.

In the case of a death, the obligation to register again most frequently devolves upon a relative, or, failing him, a person present at the death. In the United States and New Zealand this responsibility, however, devolves upon the undertaker who arranges for the funeral. In many of the more developed countries, the cause of death must also be stated at registration; this responsibility usually has to be carried out by a medical practitioner. Thus, in England and Wales the medical certificate of death is given by the doctor who attended the deceased before death or (in cases of sudden death) by the pathologist who conducted the autopsy. Either of these persons can notify the registrar of the death, but the obligation to register it rests with the next of kin. In the case of marriages the informants are normally the groom and bride, although in some areas it is the person solemnizing the marriage who actually registers it.

The time allowed for registration in different countries varies; it is normally shorter for a death than a birth. As an extreme example, the Cuban law (as of 1950) required a death to be registered immediately, but a birth only had to be registered within a year of its occurrence. In England and Wales five days are allowed for a death registration, but 42 days for the registration of births.

The form in which vital events are registered varies from country to country. As the registration system serves as the legal record of the vital event, a certificate of registration is normally issued to each informant. This may carry all the information obtained at registration, but more frequently some of the material collected is used for statistical purposes only and does not appear on the certificate. The minimum information collected at a birth is normally the date and place of its occurrence, the sex of the child, and the name of its father (in the case of a legitimate birth). In some vital statistics systems, however, a good deal of additional information is collected, e.g., the age of the mother, the occupation or age of the father, the length of the parents’ marriage, how many brothers and sisters the child has, and in some cases its weight at birth. For death registration, the name, age, and sex of the deceased person, together with the date and place of death, constitute the minimum amount of information desirable. In many vital statistics systems information is sought regarding the decedent’s marital status, occupation, and cause of death. The minimum information normally required when a marriage is registered is the marital condition of the bride and groom and their ages, although often details about their occupations and sometimes the occupations of their parents are also included.

There are a number of common difficulties connected with vital registration and vital statistics. In the case of death registration, there have been periodical revisions of the International List of Causes of Death. These revisions have affected the comparability of cause-specific death rates over time. Moreover, the treatment of multiple causes of death may differ in different countries, although the World Health Organization has recently made recommendations, endorsed by the Statistical Commission of the UN, for the adoption of a uniform International Medical Certificate of Death.

Another difficulty lies in the definition of a live birth and in the classification of stillbirths or fetal deaths. Thus, in Belgium a child born alive but dying before registration (that is, within three days of birth) is registered as stillborn. In Colombia, stillbirths are not registrable; in Cuba, survival for at least one day is required before a birth can be registered as live. In Great Britain any child born after the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy that at any time after being expelled from its mother drew breath or showed any sign of life is regarded as liveborn. Stillbirth or fetal death rates calculated in accordance with different definitions therefore cannot be comparable.

The uses of vital statistics . The information collected at vital registration is used principally in the study of population movements. Since censuses can only be taken periodically (often at decennial intervals), vital statistics serve as the principal instrument for making intercensal estimates of population. The decomposition of population growth into births, deaths, and migration is essential if its nature and causes are to be fully understood, and a knowledge of mortality and fertility rates is also necessary if reasonable assumptions are to be made for projection of population trends.

Historically, interest first arose in studying mortality statistics. Reference has already been made to John Graunt’s pioneer study in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, interest in accurate mortality statistics was stimulated by the growth of life insurance, for which adequate data on the variation of mortality with age and sex were necessary, and by the struggle against infectious and other diseases. In this connection, special mention must be made of the work of William Farr, who entered the British General Register Office as compiler of abstracts shortly after its foundation in 1837 and who served in it until his retirement in 1880. He developed the British system of death registration into an instrument for measuring the sanitary condition of the country, and his studies on mortality differences between different occupations contributed to the understanding of industrial hazards. Farr was also one of the prime movers in making mortality statistics internationally comparable and in constructing a statistical nosology of diseases that was to be used in the study of causes of death. The International List of Causes of Death has been revised from time to time, and at present the responsibility for the list lies with the World Health Organization.

Birth registrations form the basis of both fertility and natality statistics. In connection with census data on the structure of the population, they can be used to assess marital fertility and to establish fertility differences between different social groups; they may also be useful in studies on pop-ulstion genetics. In industrial societies, in which mortality is low, population projections will be dependent mainly on the assumptions made with respect to fertility and on the assessment of trends. Complex breakdown of births by parental age, occupation, duration of marriage, birth order, and sometimes interval since preceding birth, are required to make reasonable assumptions; and registration systems have become more complex in order that this information may be made available. Much the same considerations apply to the study of marriage statistics.

Eugene Grebenik

[See alsoCensus; Family, article ondisorganization anddissolution; Fertility; Government statistics; Migration; Mortality; Nuptiality; Population, article onthe field of demography; Public health; Sociology, articles onthe fieldand onthe early history of social research; and the biographies ofGraunt; Kőrösy; Lotka.]


Benjamin, Bernard (1959) 1960 Elements of Vital Statistics. London: Allen & Unwin; Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Edge, Percy Granville 1944 Vital Statistics and Public Health Work in the Tropics. London: Baillière, Tindal & Cox.

Farr, WilliamVital Statistics: A Memorial Volume of Selections from the Writings of William Farr. Edited by Noel A. Humphreys. London: The Sanitary Institute of Great Britain, 1885.

Gutman, Robert 1959 Birth and Death Registration in Massachusetts 1639-1900. New York: Milbank Memorial Fund. → First published in the Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, Volume 36, 1958, and Volume 37, 1959.

Koren, John (editor) 1918 The History of Statistics: Their Development and Progress in Many Countries. Published for the American Statistical Association. New York: Macmillan.

Kuczynski, Robert R. 1948-1953 Demographic Survey of the British Colonial Empire. 3 vols. Oxford Univ. Press. → Volume 1: West Africa, 1948. Volume 2: South African High Commission Territories: East and Central Africa, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, 1949. Volume 3: West Indian and American Territories, 1953.

Lorimer, Frank 1961 Demographic Information on Tropical Africa. Boston Univ. Press.

Spiegelman, Mortimer 1963 The Organization of the Vital and Health Statistics Monograph Program. Pages 230-249 in Milbank Memorial Fund, Emerging Techniques in Population Research: Proceedings of a Round Table at the Thirty-ninth Annual Conference …September 18-19, 1962. New York: The Fund.

United Nations, Statistical Office 1955 Handbook of Vital Statistics Methods. Studies in Methods, Series F, No. 7. New York: United Nations.

Westergaard, Harald 1932 Contributions to the History of Statistics. London: King.

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Vital Statistics


Vital statistics are perhaps the most widely used national, state, and local data for identifying and addressing major public health issues. In the United States, legal authority for the registration of vital events (births, deaths, marriages, divorces, fetal deaths, and induced terminations of pregnancy [abortions]) resides with the states, and individually with New York City, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. The states are the legal proprietors of these data and are responsible for maintaining registries and issuing copies of the records.

The existence of a national data system of registration-based vital statistics depends on a cooperative relationship between the states and the federal government. This relationship has evolved over many decades, with its initial beginnings in the early development of the public health movement and the creation of the American federal vital statistics system.


The registration of births, marriages, and deaths has a long history in the United States, beginning with registration laws enacted by the Grand Assembly of Virginia in 1632 and the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. In enacting this legislation, the early settlers, who were predominantly English, were following English customs. Thus, Virginia law required the clergy to keep a record of all christenings, marriages, and burials in their parishes. The Massachusetts law differed from Virginia's in two important respects: it called for the recording of vital events (births, deaths, and marriages) rather than church-related ceremonies; and it placed responsibility for registration of vital events on government officials rather than the clergy. Little or no statistical use was made of such records, howeveralong with wills and property inventories, they were regarded primarily as statements of fact essential to the protection of individual rights, especially those relating to the ownership and distribution of property.

The impetus for the use of vital records as the basis of a public health data system came from the realization that records of births and deaths, particularly records of deaths by cause of death, could provide information needed for the control of epidemics and the conservation of human life through sanitary reform. The origin of vital statistics in the modern sense can be traced to an analysis of the English bills of mortality published by John Graunt in 1662. Similarly, the clergyman Cotton Mather noted, in 1721, during a severe smallpox epidemic in Boston, that more than one in six of the natural cases died, but only one in sixty of the inoculated cases died.

In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution resulted in rapid urbanization, overcrowding of cities, and a deterioration of social and living conditions for large sectors of the population. Public health reformers became acutely conscious of the need for general sanitary reform as a means of controlling epidemics of disease, particularly cholera. These early sanitarians used the crude death statistics of the time to arouse public awareness of the need for improved sanitation, and in the process they pressed for more precise statistics through effective registration practices and laws. The work of Edwin Chadwick (18001890) and Dr. William Farr (18071883) in England and of Lemuel Shattuck (17931859) in Massachusetts was instrumental in the development of public health organization and practice, including the recording of vital statistics. Thus, the history of public health is largely the history of vital registration and statistics.

The United States Constitution provided for a decennial census but not a national vital registration system. To obtain national data on births, marriages, and deaths, the decennial censuses in the latter half of the nineteenth century included questions about vital events, such as: "Born within the year," "Married within the year," and "Disease, if died within the year." These census items were soon recognized as inefficient and the results as deficient. Therefore, when the Bureau of the Census was made a permanent agency of the federal government in 1902, the enabling legislation authorized the bureau to obtain annually copies of records filed in the vital statistics offices of those states and cities having adequate death registration systems and to publish data from these records. This marked the birth of the National Vital Statistics System. Ten states and cities provided death records to the Census Bureau in 1902. In 1915, birth registration was added to the system, and by 1933 all states were registering live births and deaths and providing the required data.

In 1946 responsibility for collecting and publishing national vital statistics was transferred from the Census Bureau to the U.S. Public Health Service, first in the National Office of Vital Statistics and later (1960) in the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). In 1987 NCHS became part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Bureau of the Census received unit record data from the states in hard copy or microfilm. States were reimbursed for copying efforts at four cents per record. Data were transcribed (later key entered) at both the national and state levels, as both states and federal government produced statistics. In 1971 NCHS began an experiment with the state of Florida to receive data on computer tape. This effort expanded and evolved over time, and by 2000, electronic processing and transmission was the norm. NCHS provides partial funding support for state vital statistics efforts and also works with states to implement standards for data elements, editing and coding specifications, quality control procedures, and data transmission schedules.


The National Vital Statistics System includes several major electronic data files, each containing the demographic and health information recorded on all events that occur in the United States. Birth data are recorded in the "natality file," which includes characteristics of mother's age, race, Hispanic origin, education, residence, marital status, month of pregnancy, month prenatal care began, tobacco use, and weight gain during pregnancy. Characteristics of the birth include birth weight, length of gestation, sex, plurality, method of delivery, and congenital anomalies.

The "mortality file" variables include residence, place of occurrence, month of death, age, race, Hispanic origin, birthplace, sex, education, marital status, and underlying and multiple causes of death. The "fetal death file" includes data on all fetal deaths of twenty weeks or more gestation. The characteristics of the mother and the delivery are similar to those for natality, but also include the fetal or maternal conditions causing death.

The "linked birth/infant death data system" includes three separate files: a numerator file with linked birth-infant death records for infants who died during the period; a denominator file of data for all births; and a file of the relatively few infant death records that were not linked to birth certificates.

Unlike the natality and mortality systems, detailed data for marriages and divorces have never covered the entire United States. With data year 1996, NCHS ceased collecting detailed marriage and divorce data from the states that had been providing unit records. Monthly counts of the number of marriages and divorces continue to be obtained from each state.

Data and reports from these files are available at the NCHS web site


The vital statistics system provides counts of the number of times specified vital events have occurred. These counts are useful in themselves. For example, the numbers of births and deaths are used in the estimation of population size. For most purposes, however, other statistical measures are needed. For example, comparisons of births in one place with those in another requires information on the population size of each area. The simplest and cleanest method of making such comparisons is to compute rates that relate the events to the population exposed to the risk of the event (e.g., the number of births to the number of women of child-bearing age).

Many types of relative numbers are used in the analysis of vital statistics. Those used most frequently in the United States are listed below. The reader can find additional information about the definition and computation of these statistics in the works of Weeks (1996), Shryock and Siegel (1976), or Pollard et al. (1991).

Crude rates. The number of events in a given time period divided by the population at risk produces crude rates. The result is multiplied by a constant (typically 1,000 or 100,000) for ease of presentation. Common crude rates include birth, death, marriage, and divorce.

Specific rates. Crude rates may be limited to a specific group, such as deaths from a specified cause or in a specific age group, or births to unmarried women.

Age-adjusted rates. Age-adjustment is a technique used to eliminate the effect of the age distribution of the population on mortality rates. Since the frequency of death varies with age, a measure free of the influences of population composition is needed to make comparisons between areas or over time.

Infant mortality rates. Infant mortality rates reflect the risk of deaths to infants under the age of one year. For infant deaths, the most commonly used estimate of the population at risk (denominator) is the number of live births during the period.

Life tables and life expectancy. A life table is used to measure the effect of mortality on longevity. It shows the mortality experience of a hypothetical group of infants born at the same time and subject to the mortality rates of a specific population group. A life table provides numerous statistics; perhaps the most widely used is life expectancy at birth.


Causes of death are classified for purposes of statistical tabulation according to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is published by the World Health Organization. Traditionally, a single cause of death is selected for statistical tabulations. When the certifying physician indicates that more than one cause contributed to death, a procedure is required for selecting the single cause to be tabulated. The ICD provides the basic ground rules used to code and classify causes of death, to identify the underlying cause of death, and to compensate for inconsistencies in the reported cause-of-death statement. It also includes definitions of terms such as "underlying cause of death," "live birth," "maternal death," as well as tabulation lists which define the cause-of-death groupings to be used for international comparisons. The ICD delineates the format of the medical certification of death and specific regulations regarding the compilation and publication of statistics on diseases and causes of death.


Over several centuries of development, the vital registration system in the United States has evolved into the primary source of fundamental public health information. Data on deaths, especially causes of death, have been critical for identifying, tracking, and eventually understanding and controlling epidemics of communicable diseases. Today, mortality data are used to study trends and differentials in all kinds of causes of death, both chronic and communicable, as well as those due to homicide, suicide, and unintentional injuries. Infant mortality has traditionally served as a key indicator of general health conditions in a given population. The availability of mortality statistics for small geographic units, such as counties, has contributed uniquely to the value of these data for epidemiologic investigations and surveillance.

Statistics obtained from birth certificates, fetal death reports, and the linked birth/infant death file provide a wealth of information about infant health. Statistics on birth weight, length of gestation, smoking during pregnancy, access to prenatal care, complications of labor and/or delivery, and obstetric procedures are monitored by health care providers and epidemiologists specializing in infant and child health.

In the arena of public policy, vital statistics also provide fundamental information. For example, teen pregnancy and nonmarital childbearing are topics of continuing interest in national welfare policy. Similarly, national health policy is very much concerned with the problem of health disparities among various race and ethnic groups. In these and many other important policy issues the vital statistics system constitutes a frontline source of information that leads to action programs, yields indicators of effectiveness, and generally guides the practice of public health.

Vital statistics are one of the few data systems that are generally available throughout the world. The United Nations and the World Health Organization have led efforts to standardize registration practices, definitions, and statistical measurement. Most countries have at least a rudimentary vital statistics system, and while there are inter-country variations, countries generally adhere to similar registration principles and statistical measures. These data are widely used to make international comparisons of life expectancy, cause-specific mortality, infant deaths, and other important measures. Vital statistics are also used for monitoring population growth, through measures such as total fertility rates. The United Nations publishes many international vital statistics comparisons in its Demographic Yearbook.

Mary Anne Freedman

James A. Weed

(see also: Abortion; Bills of Mortality; Biostatistics; Birth Certificates; Birthrate; Census; Certification of Causes of Death; Chadwick, Edwin; Farr, William; Graunt, John; Infant Mortality Rate; International Classification of Diseases; Life Expectancy and Life Tables; Mortality Rates; National Center for Health Statistics; Rates; Rates: Adjusted; Rates: Age-Adjusted; Shattuck, Lemuel; Statistics for Public Health )


Hetzel, A. M. (1997). History and Organization of the Vital Statistics System. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

Pollard, A. H.; Farhat, Y.; and Pollard, G. N. (1991). Demographic Techniques, 3rd edition. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press.

Shryock, H. S.; Siegel, J. S.; and Associates. (1976). The Methods and Materials of Demography, condensed by E. G. Stockwell. New York: Academic Press.

Smith, D. P. (1992). Formal Demography. New York: Plenum Press.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (1999). 1997 Demographic Yearbook. New York: United Nations.

Weeks, J. R. (1996). Population, An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

World Health Organization (1992). International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th revision. Geneva: Author.

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vital statistics

vital statistics, primarily records of the number of births and deaths in a population. Other factors, such as number of marriages and causes of death, by age groups, are regularly included. From these records can be computed birthrates and death (or mortality) rates from which trends are determined. The earliest known system of vital statistics was in China. In England the clergy was required as early as the 16th cent. to keep records of christenings, marriages, and burials; during the 17th cent. the clergy in France, Italy, and Spain began to keep similar records. The oldest continuous national records system is that of Sweden (since 1741). The clergy and government officials in the colonies of North America began to record vital statistics in the 17th cent.; on a national level, the U.S. government started publishing annual records of deaths in 1900 and of births in 1915. The most striking trend shown by recent vital statistics is the rapid increase of the populations of nonindustrial countries due to a sharp decline in the mortality rate and an acceleration of the birthrate.

See United Nations Statistical Office, Handbook of Vital Statistics Methods (1955); R. Pressat, Demographic Analysis (tr. 1972).

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vital statistics

vital statistics Statistics of births, deaths, and marriages within a country, which provide the essential basis for demography. They include crude rates matching vital events to total populations, and more sophisticated measures of fertility, nuptiality, and mortality. Their quality depends on the accuracy of vital-event registers. State registration is now usual (in Britain since 1837); church registers formerly provided some vital-event data.

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vital statistics

vi·tal sta·tis·tics / ˈvīdl stəˈtistiks/ • pl. n. 1. quantitative data concerning a population, such as the number of births, marriages, and deaths. 2. inf. the measurements of a woman's bust, waist, and hips.

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vital statistics

vital statistics pl. n. statistics relating to the births, marriages, deaths, and incidence of disease within a population.

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statistics, vital

statistics, vital See VITAL STATISTICS.

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