Reliable, comparable information about the main causes of disease and injury in populations, and how these are changing, is a critical input for debates about priorities in the health sector. Traditional sources of information about the descriptive epidemiology of diseases, injuries and risk factors are generally incomplete, fragmented and of uncertain reliability and comparability. Lack of a standardized measurement framework to permit comparisons across diseases and injuries, as well as risk factors, and failure to systematically evaluate data quality have impeded comparative analyses of the true public health importance of various conditions and risk factors. As a consequence the impact of major conditions and hazards on population health has been poorly appreciated, often leading to a lack of public health investment. Global disease and risk factor quantification improved dramatically in the early 1990s with the completion of the first Global Burden of Disease Study. For the first time, the comparative importance of over 100 diseases and injuries, and ten major risk factors, for global and regional health status could be assessed using a common metric (Disability-Adjusted Life Years) which simultaneously accounted for both premature mortality and the prevalence, duration and severity of the non-fatal consequences of disease and injury. As a consequence, mental health conditions and injuries, for which non-fatal outcomes are of particular significance, were identified as being among the leading causes of disease/injury burden worldwide, with clear implications for policy, particularly prevention. A major achievement of the Study was the complete global descriptive epidemiology, including incidence, prevalence and mortality, by age, sex and Region, of over 100 diseases and injuries. National applications, further methodological research and an increase in data availability have led to improved national, regional and global estimates for 2000, but substantial uncertainty around the disease burden caused by major conditions, including, HIV, remains. The rapid implementation of cost-effective data collection systems in developing countries is a key priority if global public policy to promote health is to be more effectively informed.