Dominican Republic panic has officially gone mainstream. Over the past few weeks, a number of tourists have become seriously ill or died while on vacation in the island country. The State Department has emphasized that there is no uptick in the number of American deaths there, but the story has generated a surge of media interest and Delta Air Lines has started allowing passengers to cancel or change their travel plans without incurring additional fees.
This story feels almost destined for virality. It involves mysterious, sudden deaths on a beach trip while everyone is thinking about his or her own upcoming summer vacations. But it also preys on innumeracy. People tend to be good at thinking about small numbers but bad at thinking about big ones, and that seems to have fueled fear around this story.
The facts: So far, roughly a dozen U.S. tourists have recently died from sometimes mysterious, sudden illnesses in the Dominican Republic. Every death is a tragedy, and looking through the photos and hearing the stories of these individuals is heartbreaking. But, from a statistical perspective, the odds of surviving a trip to the Dominican Republic are still good. Almost 3 million Americans visit the Dominican Republic every year. The State Department doesn’t report the number of U.S. travelers who die of natural causes, and five of these deaths have been labeled as natural by the Dominican government, though investigations are ongoing. But a string of roughly a dozen deaths doesn’t mean the country is dramatically more dangerous than it was last year. Millions of Americans visit the Dominican Republic every year, so adding a dozen extra deaths to the total would have almost no effect on the rate at which Americans die there.
Other statistics suggest that the Dominican Republic isn’t generally unsafe. CNN reported that unnatural deaths, such as drowning, car accidents and homicide, happened to 0.58 out of every 100,000 American visitors to the Dominican Republic in 2018. That’s lower than the rate of unnatural deaths in Jamaica and the Bahamas. Moreover, the State Department hasn’t issued a warning about traveling to the country, hasn’t found a connection between the deaths and seems more concerned about crime than sudden illness. So at this point, the Dominican Republic doesn’t seem unsafe.
But the story has taken off in part because it taps into certain deep emotions and psychological instincts. It’s easy for people to empathetically latch onto the stories of others. It’s harder to conceptualize a large number such as the 2.7 million U.S. travelers who went to the Dominican Republic in 2018, compare the approximately dozen or so who have died with that large number and calm yourself down about the small risks.
Stories such as this can also create a chain reaction of anecdotes: If people get worried about getting sick in the Dominican Republic, the news media will look for other cases of sickness and death there. Even if those new cases seem to have disparate causes or happened years ago, they fuel more worry about the Dominican Republic and lead news reporters to find more individual stories. If you comb through the millions of Americans who visited the country over a span of multiple years, you will find cases of illness and death that resemble the current string of deaths, regardless of whether a broader pattern exists. Sometimes unrelated events, such as the shooting of beloved Dominican baseball legend David Ortiz, can get sucked into these growing stories and create an even bigger, less coherent narrative — in this case, that the Dominican Republic is generally dangerous — that completely spins out of control.
I’m not going to make a recommendation about whether you should travel to the Dominican Republic. The numbers currently suggest that the risks haven’t increased much, and I wouldn’t cancel my own trip there. But decisions such as this are about personal costs as well as probabilities. Maybe you’re the sort of person who, even if you knew all the stats, would be unable to shake your fears and enjoy your vacation after watching the reports of these deaths. Or maybe you don’t want to go on a vacation when you know your relatives are going to check in on you every hour or send you endless news clips suggesting you’re in danger.
Math can guide us and calm us down about small risks, such as the risk of dying on vacation in the Dominican Republic. But probability won’t tell you if you’re going to have a good time once you get there.