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Editor’s View: What’s scarier – snakebites or statistics?

The insurance industry must not be tempted to use scare tactics

Apologies in advance if this article is littered with typos or other mistakes, but it’s quite hard writing on a laptop when you’re hiding under a bed.

Why would someone be writing an article hiding under a bed, you might ask, unless it is for some kind of samizdat being produced in the fight against the scourge of communism?

The truth is, I’m scared. Of everything. Mostly communism and poisonous snakes, but apparently we’re meant to be scared of everything else too.

There are “hidden” health risks everywhere, you see. We’re bombarded on a daily basis with messages alerting us to the hidden dangers lurking where you’d least expect it.

Last month, for example, we learnt that bites from venomous snakes are the “world’s biggest hidden health crisis”.

I raised an eyebrow when that headline passed over my desk. Poisonous snakes are obviously a health risk (and are notoriously shy and like to remain hidden).

But it’s a statement that isn’t actually as blatantly or comically obvious as it sounds. After all, we’re not talking about health risks from the type of snakebites that students enjoy (that sophisticated mixed pint of half cider and half lager that still sends a shudder down my spine when I think back to being a student).

It’s serious stuff. Snakebites kill between 80,000 and 140,000 people every year: one person for every five minutes. That compares to the average number of injuries from landmines which now stands at between 6-8,000 a year – which is still 6,000-8,000 too many, but is something that generates much more attention in terms of public awareness.

And it’s not just fatalities. Each year another 400,000 people suffer life-changing injuries from amputations and psychological trauma caused by snakebites.

The global burden of death and disability due to snakebites is the same as prostate or cervical cancer; and it is higher than infectious diseases like rabies or dengue fever.

According to Wellcome, the London-based independent global charitable foundation, these numbers are almost certainly an underestimate, too. Many bites and deaths go unrecorded.

Wellcome – which is based just around the corner from Health Insurance & Protection HQ (they put on some great exhibitions too if you’re passing this way) – has just announced £80m in funding for a new programme to focus on changing the way antivenom and other treatments are researched and delivered. We wish the initiative well. After all, although they’re scary, we can’t just obliterate poisonous snakes from existence; they’re beautiful and blameless, unlike, say, communism.

But what does all this have to do with insurance? Quite a lot. No, there isn’t a new product called Snakebite Protection Insurance (“Benefits with bite” anyone?) hitting the market. But statistics around health and health risks – and especially “hidden” ones – are manifest.

And the finger of blame often gets pointed at the insurance industry, which is often (sometimes fairly, more often unfairly) criticised for fuelling fear in a bid to increase demand for cover.

Take, for example, cancer. The “one-in-three people will develop cancer at some point in their life” stat has been hiked upwards to one-in-two people.

Fortunately, that statistic doesn’t seem to be used by insurers any more – although it has been used in the past. After all, many of those cancers would be developed by older individuals who would fall outside the remit of most protection contracts and so it’s hardly cricket to use those figures.

Or mental health. Statistics around that are notoriously difficult to handle. According to mental health charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, while in England, one in six people report experiencing a “common mental health problem” in any given week.

Again, the health insurance & protection industry, on the whole, resists the temptation to manipulate such figures to its commercial advantage. Like cancer, mental health problems obviously include conditions associated with old age and palliative care that would fall outside the scope of most insurance products. Those figures also include the entire spectrum of mental health conditions, from mild to severe.

But the sector must remain vigilant to ensure that such statistics – which are up for debate in any case – are not massaged and used in order to push more product.

There are so many health risks out there and, yes, many, like cancer and mental health problems, are often “hidden”.

The list of so-called “hidden health risks” is seemingly endless, definitely risible and growing day by day. My exclusive research has revealed that the following are all, according to some pretty well respected and mainstream sources, “hidden health risks” (which I have listed here with links to the sources for your convenience).

Here goes: handkerchiefs; gel manicures; being an air hostess or an air host; jogging; sitting; sleeping; not sleeping; snoring; dairy; craft beer; takeaway food; plastic takeaway food containers; Christmas; complementary therapies; skinny jeans; alternative therapies; crumpets; office party buffets; breakfast cereals; supermarket check-out queues; tight shirt collars and neckties; g-strings; reading glasses; office coffee; zip-flies; 3D printing; crossing your legs; snow; holiday shopping; self-employment; commuting; tonic water; tattoos; homes; eggnog; working night shifts (erm, or maybe not); children; airport check-in queues; mistletoe; airplane trays/tables; escalator handrails; carpets; shopping trolleys; and taking selfies. Oh, and being left-handed.

Happily – while we must, of course, all remain on our guard to avoid those frankly terrifying hidden health risks – I can report that there are no poisonous snakes here under my bed and so I should be safe from them at least (although this is South London, so you never know what to expect).

Sadly, though, I’ve just realised that I’m using the laptop late at night – and you know what they say about the hidden health risk of doing that