The Biggest Killers in Southeast Asia

The most common reasons for visits from the Grim Reaper.
Monday 3 December 2018
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

We commute to work, so it is natural to assume that driving would be a major contributor of deaths in Southeast Asia. Well, think again. Diseases may be the death of us. Here are some of the illnesses that are keeping the region’s population in check.

Okay, maybe traffic could be a cause. The Department of Statistics found that that the number of men dying in transport-related accidents has increased by 0.4% in 2016. But that isn’t the Grim Reaper that is causing most deaths in the country. It’s actually teh tarik. And roti canai. And nasi lemak. Ischaemic heart disease was the principal cause of death in 2016, affecting 13.2% of the country’s 30.8 million population. This was followed by pneumonia (12.5%) and cerebrovascular diseases (6.9%). Traffic accidents took fourth place, killing 5.4% of the population, while the remaining 2.2% deaths were caused by cancer of the trachea, bronchus and lungs. Let’s hope the new regulations to ban smoking at open-air eateries will help to reduce this.

We were always taught to share with our neighbours. Well, we are not sure which way the sharing went, but ischaemic heart diseases also grabbed the top spot in Indonesia for 2016. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the number of deaths caused by heart diseases increases by 12.4% every year in this country. This is followed by cerebrovascular diseases which have increased by over 32% in the last decade. Despite reports that smokers make up almost 5% of the country’s 257.9 million population, diseases like tuberculosis and respiratory infections have dropped by 28.3% and 34.7% respectively, in the last decade.

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Oily, fatty goodness. Photo: iStock

For a country with an overachieving kiasu community, you would think that hypertension or stress would sit at the top of the list. But even in Singapore, ischaemic heart diseases reign as the deadliest, killing about 3% of its 3.9 million population annually, no thanks to the wide range of fat-laden food available. Hypertensive heart diseases crept to the 9th place from the 13th a decade ago, an increase of 41.3%. A little scary, but not as scary as Alzheimer’s which showed a 99.5% increase from 2005. Alzheimer’s is now the third highest cause of death in Singapore.

Though heart disease takes the lead again in the country, the 91.3% increase in the last ten years is cause for concern. As opposed to other countries that saw a fall in numbers for at least one disease, here in Brunei the top ten diseases all saw a significant increase in the last decade. Among the diseases killing Brunei’s small population of 426,800 are diabetes (which increased by 46.9%) and lung cancer (which increased by 89%).

Nope, it’s not gunshots, although President Rodrigo Duterte would be glad if it was. The leading cause of death according to the Philippines Department of Health is again heart disease. More than one in every five deaths in the Philippines is caused by diseases of the heart. With at least 118,740 deaths a year, heart disease recorded a 22.3% share of total deaths from a population of 103.3 million. The department also noted that heart disease has been on the top spot for several years now and has been increasing by about 5% every year.

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Tobacco use accounts for a large number of deaths in Thailand. Photo: iStock

The land known for its pristine beaches, intense nightlife and well… sex. Surprisingly, the top cause of death in this country is not sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), probably because all most who get it are travellers and they leave. As for the locals, tobacco was the main killer in 2016. It kills about 6.7% of Thailand’s 67.5 million population annually. Following closely is alcohol and drug abuse which had dropped by 9.6% from ten years ago when it was the No.1 killer. HIV and AIDS which previously occupied the top three spots, had slipped to 11th place, a drop of over 45.7% from a decade ago, thanks perhaps to the condom boom and meds.

The mere mention of this country brings morbid thoughts. Though persecution and ethnic cleansing could actually be the highest cause of death in the country, that is not how it is recorded. Strictly speaking, cerebrovascular diseases are the main killers. Cerebrovascular diseases include all disorders in which an area of the brain is temporarily or permanently affected by ischaemia or bleeding. This includes stroke, carotid stenosis and vertebral stenosis, among others. Although the numbers have dropped since 10 years ago, the disease, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, kills about 7% of Myanmar’s 54.4 million population every year.

Related: Too Much Sleep Can be Really Bad for Your Health