OBJECTIVE: The disability adjusted life year (DALY) and the healthy life year (HeaLY) are both composite indicators of disease burden in a population, which combine healthy life lost from mortality and morbidity. The two formulations deal with the onset and course of a disease differently. The purpose of this paper is to compare the DALY and HeaLY formulations as to differences in apparent impact when a disease is not in an epidemiological steady state and to explore the implications of the differing results. DESIGN: HIV is used as a case study of a major disease that is entering its explosive growth phase in large areas of Asia. Data from the global burden of disease study of the World Bank and World Health Organisation for 1990 has been used to compare burden of disease measures in the two formulations. SETTING: The data pertain to global and regional estimates of HIV impact. RESULTS: The DALY attributes life lost from premature mortality to the year of death, while the HeaLY to the year of disease onset. This results in very large differences in estimates of healthy life lost based upon the DALY construct as compared with the HeaLY, for diseases such as HIV or those with a strong secular trend. CONCLUSION: The demonstration of the dramatic difference between the two indicators of disease burden reflects a limitation of the DALY. This information may directly influence decision making based on such methods and is critical to understand.
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