Background With the demographic transition disproportionately affecting developing nations, the healthcare burden associated with the elderly is likely to be compounded by poor baseline surgical capacity in these settings. We sought to assess the prevalence of surgical disease and disability in the elderly population of Sierra Leone to guide future development strategies. Methods A cluster randomized, cross-sectional household survey was carried out countrywide in Sierra Leone from January 9th to February 3rd 2012. Using a standardized questionnaire, household member demographics, deaths occurring during the previous 12 months, and presence of any current surgical condition were elucidated. A retrospective analysis of individuals aged 50 and over was performed. Results The survey included 1,843 households with a total of 3,645 respondents. Of these, 13.6% (496/3,645) were aged over 50 years. Of the elderly individuals in our sample, 301 (60.7%) reported a current surgical condition. Of current surgical disease identified among elderly individuals (n = 530), 349 (65.8%) described it as disabling, and 223 (42.1%) sought help from traditional medicine practitioners. Women (odds ratio [OR] 0.60; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.40-0.90) and individuals living in urban settings (OR 0.44, 95% CI 0.26-0.75) were less likely to report a current surgical problem. Of the 230 elderly deaths in the previous year, 83 (36.1%) reported a surgical condition in the week prior. Conclusions The unmet burden of surgical disease is prevalent in the elderly in low-resource settings. This patient population is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and more resources should be allocated to address their surgical needs.
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