Objective To provide internationally comparable data on the frequencies of different causes of death. Methods We analysed verbal autopsies obtained during 1999-2002 from 12 demographic surveillance sites in sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh to find cause-specific and age-specific mortality rates. The cause-of-death codes used by the sites were harmonized to conform to the ICD-10 system, and summarized with the classification system of the Global Burden of Disease 2000 (Version 2). Findings Causes of death in the African sites differ strongly from those in Bangladesh, where there is some evidence of a health transition from communicable to noncommunicable diseases, and little malaria. HIV dominates in causes of mortality in the South African sites, which contrast with those in highly malaria endemic sites elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa (even in neighbouring Mozambique), The contributions of measles and diarrhoeal diseases to mortality in sub-Saharan Africa are lower than has been previously suggested, while malaria is of relatively greater importance. Conclusion The different patterns of mortality we identified may be a result of recent changes in the availability and effectiveness of health interventions against childhood cluster diseases.