Inside the Issues



*Health on board ships
*Photo: Steven Bruijneel,

When you are working at sea, you want to be fit and healthy. But seafarers can be prone to specific illnesses and diseases because of the nature of the work and travel to new countries. Some of the main health risks you may face are outlined below, along with information on how to get help and support, and how to take care of yourself to protect your health. 

What is malaria?

Malaria is a preventable, life-threatening disease transmitted by the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito.

It is predominantly a disease affecting Africa (which has 90% of the one million deaths from malaria a year), South and Central America, Asia, and the Middle East.

While 100% protection is not possible, protective measures can significantly reduce the risk of transmission. And, if transmission does occur, appropriate drugs can suppress and even eradicate the parasites.

What should I do?

  • Wear appropriate clothing, and use repellents, impregnated bed nets, insecticides, screens and air-conditioning
  • Be aware of the risks in the countries where you berth. If you have to go inland, be aware that the danger of infection may increase
  • Take medical advice on anti-malarial drugs if going into a malaria area
  • Go for immediate diagnosis and early treatment if malaria is suspected
Malaria protection should be available on board, as well as standby emergency treatment.

For further advice and help, please use the links on the right of this page.

What are HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? 

HIV is a global epidemic affecting more than 38 million people, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa, but the epidemic is growing worldwide. It is spread through unprotected sex, but also through needle sharing (intravenous drug use and tattoos, for example).

STIs are a common problem worldwide. They include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes. If left untreated, they can cause illness, infertility and disability, and increase the risk of HIV/AIDS. They can also be spread to partners and transmitted to unborn/newborn children. While many can be treated fairly easily, some leave lasting damage, and all of them need treatment as early as possible.

Why are seafarers at risk? 

Seafarers have a greater risk of HIV/AIDS and STIs because of working and living away from spouses and partners, single-sex working and living arrangements, and the availability of sex workers in ports.

What should I do?

  • If you suspect you may have an STI, stop sexual activity and seek medical advice immediately
  • If you think you may be at risk of HIV/AIDS or any other STI because of unprotected sex, you should go for testing
  • If an STI is diagnosed, you should notify sexual partners to ensure that they are tested too, and to prevent the further spread of any infection
  • To prevent HIV/AIDS and STIs, practise safer sex – use condoms and reduce the number of sexual partners
Selection for employment based on HIV status is unacceptable - and is already illegal in many countries. If you are denied employment because you are HIV positive, this should be challenged by your union.

For further advice and help, please use the links on the right of this page.

What is heart disease?

Diseases of the heart and arteries end many seafaring careers early - and are the number one killer of seafarers while at sea. But you can help ward off heart disease – and many other health risks – through eating wisely and taking exercise while you are on board. A good diet and fit body will help you to fight off illness and disease – and to recover more quickly if you do become sick.

What should I do?

Eat sensibly:
  • Make carbohydrates the main part of your meal
  • Avoid fat and too much fried food
  • Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day
  • Stay off fatty, salty or sugary snacks
  • Cut down on alcohol
  • Drink more water
Stay fit:
  • You can do sit-ups, press-ups and stretching in your cabin
  • Weights - improvise with small cans of food or bottles of water
  • Exercise with a crewmate and set goals
  • Take brisk exercise, such as walking, cycling and swimming, for at least 30 minutes three times per week – and use the stairs whenever you can
  • When in port, visit seafarers’ sports centres whenever possible
Stop smoking:
  • Smoking kills through lung cancer and coronary heart disease, causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, leads to diseases of the arteries in the legs, and is associated with many other cancers
Negotiate healthy food guidelines with your company to ensure that healthy food options are available on board.

For further advice and help, please use the links on the right of this page.

What about psychological wellbeing?

The isolation of seafaring can sometimes take its toll on you and your family. Loneliness, homesickness and ‘burn out’ are the main psychological problems you may face.

What should I do?

  • If you are feeling isolated or depressed, talk to someone you trust
  • Take exercise and eat healthily
The strain of a seafaring life could be reduced by shorter trips, paid leave to match length to sea time, continuous employment, opportunities for partners (and children) to sail, and improved access to cheaper communication.

For further advice and help, please use the link on the right of this page.