Friday, November 13, 2009

WHO Report Identifies Disparities in Women’s Health Treatment

Clearly, women are different than men; not only in anatomy but in the way they think, express emotion, and interact. Men and women are also different in matters of sickness and health. For example, each of the sexes displays different symptoms of heart attack. Chest pain is most common in men, while women’s symptoms are usually subtler, characterized by abdominal pain, nausea, and fatigue. Men and women also absorb and excrete some drugs in different ways and at different rates, and certain drugs are more effective in women while others have more severe side effects in women than in men. But still, the idea of equating women and men’s health persists, simplifying women’s health treatment to the point of triggering dangerous consequences.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that despite the fact that women provide the bulk of health care, whether in the home, the community or the health system, they are being “denied a chance to develop their full human potential” because many of their critical medical needs are ignored. The agency’s latest report entitled “Women and health: today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda” attempts to emphasize the unequal health treatment women face throughout their lifetime. “What this report has measured is the profound impact that social status has on the health of women and girls,” said Margaret Chan, WHO’s Director-General. “As the report reveals, the obstacles that stand in the way of better health for women are not primarily technical or medical in nature; they are social and political, and the two go together.”

According to the report, even though women live six to eight years longer than men they tend to “receive poorer quality care throughout their lives, particularly as teenagers and elderly people.” Globally, HIV, pregnancy-related conditions, and tuberculosis continue to be major killers of women aged 15 to 45. In many countries, sexual and reproductive health services tend to focus exclusively on married women and ignore the needs of adolescents and unmarried women. Service can also be very difficult to access for other marginalized groups of women such as sex workers, intravenous drug users, ethnic minorities and rural women.

As women age, noncommunicable diseases, such as heart attack and stroke, become the major causes of death and disability, particularly after the age of 45. Women tend to develop heart disease later in life than men, and because they show different symptoms from men, cardiovascular disease is often undiagnosed in women. Other major problems in older age, often untreated, include poor vision, hearing loss, arthritis, depression and dementia.

The report also compares the health of women with different socio-economic status. Lack of access to education, decision-making positions and income may limit women’s ability to protect their own health and that of their families. For example, the risk posed by HIV is compounded in cultures that limit women’s knowledge about the disease and their ability to negotiate safer sex. Another main cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in developing countries is pregnancy-related complications, with unsafe abortions accounting for a large number of such deaths. Low-income nations also have minimal screening and treatment services for cervical cancer, the second-most common type of cancer in women. “Women who do not know how to protect themselves from such infections, or who are unable to do so, face increased risks of death or illness,” the report said. “So do those who cannot protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy or control their fertility because of lack of access to contraception.”

The report calls for reform, both within and outside the health sector, to better meet the needs of women. But Dr. Chan says we will not see significant progress as long as women are regarded as “second-class citizens” in many parts of the world. “In so many societies, men exercise political, social and economic control,” she said. “The health sector has to be concerned. These unequal power relations translate into unequal access to health care and unequal control over health resources.”


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