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Your greatest expat health risk: Not always the headline-grabbing diseases

… it’s not always the headline-grabbing diseases

It can be dangerous to focus ONLY on headline-grabbing diseases and ignore the ones that pose a real threat to expats.

Pop quiz:

1) How many Americans have died from Ebola disease to date? [confirmed, probable or suspected deaths which occurred between 2014-2016 only]

2) How many died from the ‘flu in 2015-16?

The answers are: 1) One1 and 2) Anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000.2

If you’re like many people, you probably overestimated #1 and grossly underestimated #2. It may be human nature to pay outsized attention to the latest scary infectious disease, like Zika. And there are very good reasons for doing that — especially if there is no cure.

Hiding in plain sight

But it can be dangerous to focus ONLY on these headline-grabbing diseases and ignore the ones that actually pose more of a real threat to your health. At the height of the Ebola scare, it ranked as the third most pressing health concern in a U.S. poll after cost and access — even though fewer Americans contracted it than the number who were trampled to death by animals (four) during the same time period.

Despite widespread fears, Ebola didn’t move much beyond West Africa. This was partly because patients were too sick to travel and partly because the virus can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, not through airborne particles.3 But the same can’t be said of the ‘flu and several other troubling diseases. And if you’re moving around the globe yourself, your risks increase.

The big five

Although many infectious diseases plague the world — especially in low-income countries — a mere handful are collectively responsible for more than one in eight deaths globally. Yet these chronic, highly contagious threats often get disproportionately less attention and research funding. They are:

Lower respiratory tract infections. This category, which includes pneumonia, accounts for more than 4 million deaths annually, mostly in the developing world. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death among the very young.

Diarrhoeal disease. Caused by dirty water, poor hygiene and inadequate or non-existent sanitary facilities, diarrhoeal disease kills 1.5 million people annually, half of them under the age of 5.

Tuberculosis (TB). This bacterium-caused disease causes 1.5 million deaths a year. More than half of deaths occur in Asia, and most of the rest occur in other parts of the developing world. A staggering one-third of the world’s population carries TB, although most are latent carriers — meaning they have been infected but don’t actually have the disease so can’t spread it to others.

HIV/AIDS. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted through sexual contact, sharing needles or transfusion of tainted blood. Infected mothers can also pass the virus to their unborn children or through breastfeeding after birth. AIDS kills 1.1 million people annually.

Malaria. Each year this parasitic disease claims an estimated 438,000 lives — most of them children who live in sub-Saharan Africa. It has rebounded in areas where mosquito eradication has been halted due to environmental concerns.5

Know before you go

Which diseases you need to protect yourself from depends on where you’re travelling. Maybe you’re set to work in Germany with regular trips to the Middle East. Or perhaps you’re accompanying your spouse on assignment based in Singapore but end up travelling unexpectedly to Malaysia. Wherever you go, it’s important to be informed and prepared.

Make a plan

Visit your doctor at least six weeks before your trip to find out what special vaccinations and/or medications are recommended for life in your new location. Be sure that your routine vaccinations, such as MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), tetanus and polio, are up-to-date. And remember to get the same preventive care you normally need at home before you leave.

You can also take a look at our destination guides and the World Health Organization’s international travel and health section for more detailed information.

Building a healthier world

At Aetna International, we provide much more than international health insurance. We give you the peace of mind you need to explore the world safely and in good health. Discover more through our pre-trip planning resources.

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