This past week we celebrated International Women’s Day. Taking center stage in our thoughts that day was the empowerment and rights of women, as well as the noteworthy achievements of women throughout the world, past and present. With the importance of that day still in thought, I feel the urge to rebuild awareness of global health risks and concerns still facing women today. Although the severity and pervasiveness vary country to country, it is troubling for medical practitioners to know certain factors negatively influencing women’s health on a global level still exist. The good news is that many of the leading threats to women’s health are preventable — requiring only access to screenings, education and health-care services.
On a global level, while many health risks and conditions are the same for men and women — some health risks affect women more severely than men, and some primarily affect women:
• The effect of sexually transmitted diseases, STDs, and sexually transmitted infections, STIs, on women is generally more serious than on men. STDs and STIs often go untreated in women because of less obvious symptoms. Studies show this can lead to infertility in women.
• Although heart disease is the leading cause of death for women and men worldwide, women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men, in part because women more often delay seeking emergency care and more often delay treatments to control their cholesterol levels.
• Globally, more women are diagnosed annually with depression than men. Evidence suggests women are more prone to experience depression, somatic complaints and anxiety. Further, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, stress has been shown to reduce a woman’s chance of becoming pregnant.
• More women are at risk for developing breast cancer during their lifetime than men. Researchers have concluded less than 1 percent of all breast carcinomas occur in men.
• While stroke risk factors for men and women include a family history of stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, data shows more women than men suffer from strokes each year. Some risk factors for strokes that are unique to women include taking birth control pills, being pregnant, having frequent migraine headaches and having high blood fat levels.
• While men are more likely than women to become dependent on and addicted to alcohol, studies show the health effects of alcoholism and alcohol abuse are more serious in women when signs of addiction are present. These health effects include increased heart disease risk, breast cancer risk and fetal alcohol syndrome risk.
• Arthritis, the leading cause of physical disability globally, affects more women than men.
• Women are more likely than men are to experience urinary tract problems.
Focused attempts to educate women at a local level about health risks and healthy lifestyles are proving to be a strong first step in minimizing specific factors still negatively influencing women’s health worldwide. Clinicians, researchers, and practitioners must continue to provide women ongoing health education and support, particularly in the following areas.
• Cancer — While the odds are that two out of three women will never get cancer, the following cancers remain of global concern particularly for women: breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, colon and rectal cancer, uterine cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Detecting these particular cancers early is key to keeping women alive and healthy worldwide. The vast majority of deaths from these cancers occur in low- and middle-income countries where screening, prevention and treatment are almost nonexistent.
• Maternal health — Hundreds of thousands of women still die each year around the world from hemorrhage, hypertension and associated complications in pregnancy and childbirth, which could be prevented through more educational programs, and greater access to basic services and family planning. The risks and implications associated with a sedentary lifestyle and obesity during pregnancy is a global concern, as is the need for ongoing quality care — before, during and after childbirth — to reduce maternal mortality rates worldwide.
• Reproductive health — For women between 15 and 44 years of age worldwide, sexual and reproductive health problems account for health issues more than a third of the time. Unsafe sex is a major risk factor, particularly among adolescent girls and women in countries without needed contraception services. Many suffer the consequences of unsafe abortion, and complications leading to death.
• HIV — Young women still struggle worldwide to protect themselves against sexual transmission of HIV, and to get treatments required. Further, this leaves them vulnerable to tuberculosis.
• Violence against women — Sexual and physical violence, either by a partner or someone else, effects one in three women under the age of 50 worldwide. It has been documented that older women across the globe are at a higher risk of abuse and poorer health.
Organizations like the World Health Organization and Office of Global Women’s Health are actively seeking to improve the health of women globally, particularly in our world’s poorest countries. Driven by outcomes and the belief that real solutions come by working side-by-side and through grassroot efforts at local levels, preventable risk factor in women’s health are slowly being addressed. Locally, we can strengthen our resolve to play an active role in reducing women’s health risk factors worldwide through expanded information-sharing initiatives and programs, and by making healthy lifestyle choices others can follow.
Written by: By Lizellen La Follette, IJ correspondent