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Data: Statistical Breakdown of Threats to U.S. Citizens Abroad

Updated: Mar 8

The Current Environment of Heightened Terror Threat

On October 7, 2023, Hamas militants launched a devastating attack on Israeli military and civilian targets near Gaza. Israel responded with a military occupation of Gaza designed to eradicate the militant group (which is also the governing body of Gaza). Israel's occupation of Gaza has been very costly both in terms of destroyed Gaza housing and infrastructure and also in terms of innocent lives lost. The U.S. Administration and a majority of Congress have sided both politically and financially with Israel, angering large swathes of the Arab/Muslim community and its supporters. Due to the increased risk of terror attacks on U.S. citizens associated with the U.S. support of Israel, the U.S. State Department has since issued a global alert, warning U.S. citizens and its officials to be more cautious when traveling abroad due to the heightened risk of terror attacks.

How Big Is the Terror Threat?

In what follows, I examine how dangerous such a terror threat might be. You can see in the chart below from U.S. State Department data that terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens abroad are fairly low (relative to the 5-9 million U.S. citizens overseas at any given time). Additionally, the rate of terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens has sharply declined following the wind-down of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

We should, of course, still take terrorism warnings from the State Department seriously, but it's also good to put it in context.

What Are the Bigger Risks?

With its focus on rare, unexpected events, the news media (like the U.S. State Department) can give us the wrong idea about our real risks. According to Our World in Data, 74% of people globally die from noncommunicable diseases such as heart attacks and cancer. So if you're visiting Manila, a stroke is more likely to take you out than a robbery. A bit more than half of the remaining 26% die from communicable diseases (e.g., covid, flu, tuberculosis, etc.). Obviously, if you travel to an exotic locale, your exposure to tropical diseases, often spread through contaminated food and water, or mosquitoes, is greater. Fortunately, many tropical diseases, such as typhoid and yellow fever, are vaccine-preventable. There is, however, no vaccine available in the U.S. yet for malaria, though preventive medicines are available. There is also no vaccine available for tuberculosis, another big global killer, but it is fortunately treatable with antibiotics.

Deaths Not Due to Illness

A much smaller portion of the global population dies from causes not related to disease: 5.4% due to accident, 1.3% due to suicide and less than 1% due to interpersonal violence (Our World in Data). Because of the nature of visiting an unknown locale, these non-disease-related causes are often at the forefront of our minds as we travel. Using data from the U.S. State Department, we can break down the causes of the 15,549 non-disease-related deaths of U.S. citizens abroad recorded over the last 20 years (see table below).

Note that the vast majority of the deaths were accident-related: 32.8% due to vehicle accidents, 13.5% due to drowning, 12.9% due to other accidents, and 1.4% due to natural disasters. That's nearly two thirds of the total.

A Breakdown of Vehicle-Related Deaths

Since nearly a third of non-disease-related deaths were vehicle accidents, it makes sense to break these deaths down further to look at which vehicles. You can see that more than half of all vehicle deaths are automobile-related.

Note that just because the majority of vehicle deaths occur in cars, that doesn't mean cars are the most dangerous vehicles. It more likely refers to the fact that the car is the vehicle type most used by tourists. Motorcycles are much more dangerous than cars. According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, motorcycles are about 25 times as deadly as cars.

Parting Thoughts

Understanding the risks when you travel abroad can help you achieve two important objectives: (1) survival by avoiding the most hazardous situations and (2) peace of mind when engaged in activities that are safer statistically speaking. Although the news and government agencies may be focused on airplane accidents, armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, and other rare events, you, as a traveler, are better off focusing on the more mundane (but much more common) risks: vehicle accidents, cancer, etc.


About the Author

Aaron Charlton, PhD is a science and medical blogger and entrepreneur. He writes for Away Clinic and other medical clients. He also maintains a website called that is aimed at improving transparency and quality of scientific research within the field of marketing. He is sometimes quoted by the media on matters of scientific integrity.


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