OPINION | Sipho Mamize: Let's talk about the medical science gender gap

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The author examines the medical science gender gap. Picture: iStock
The author examines the medical science gender gap. Picture: iStock

If we want an equal society, we need to ensure women have access to healthcare services and treatments that meet their specific needs, and diagnostic tools that don't favour men, writes Sipho Mamize.

There has been a lot of talk about gender equality over the past years.

One sphere that has been neglected and ignored, it seems, is the medical science gender gap. We must talk about this, particularly on International Day of Action for Women's Health, a permanent fixture on the global awareness calendar since 1987. Its objective is to highlight the prevailing gaps in research data regarding female health, and to campaign for a better understanding and funding of women's health issues.

While women and men are equal in the eyes of the law, physically and biologically, there are quite a few differences, over and above the obvious ones. The problem is that these are systematically ignored, which has serious repercussions.

Let's take heart attacks for example. Are you aware that so-called classic heart attack symptoms, such as chest pains, are male symptoms and many female heart attack patients typically experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, backaches, and jaw – but not chest – pains? I didn't.

Also, while men are more likely to suffer from heart attacks than women, the bulk of people who die from this condition are female? I didn't know this either. One of the key reasons is that their symptoms don't match the classic signs and are often ignored.

Impact on women

You don't have to take my word for it as I am just a civil society player and far from an expert, but please consider the findings of American healthcare journalist, Maya Dusenbery. She has written an entire book on the global medical science gender gap, how it impacts women's health and, ultimately, their survival rates when facing a medical crisis.

"On average, women are diagnosed with heart disease seven to 10 years later than men," she writes in Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, adding that diagnosis methods still very much favour male biology. "Many women experience a delayed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis."

The above is not the only reason the annual International Day of Action for Women's Health remains incredibly vital. Did you, for instance, know that most drugs are tested in males only, systematically excluding females. Yes, this also applies to medications developed for women, data by the Yale School of Medicine shows! The main reason is, apparently, women's fluctuating female hormone cycles.

Because of this, women are more likely to suffer from adverse drug events than men, simply because the side-effects they experience have not been recorded and, therefore, can't be considered.

Less funding 

What makes it worse is that women's health research receives significantly less funding than male health research. A good example is premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women and can be utterly debilitating, versus erectile dysfunction, which strikes less than one in five men. Despite this, five times more research and funding go towards the latter than the former.

In the UK, less than 2.5% of publicly-funded research was dedicated to female reproductive health, even though more than one in three British women will suffer from reproductive or gynaecological health issues in their lifetimes.

The question is why all of this concerns me, a male who works in civil society. First, the bulk of the recipients of Afrika Tikkun's services are women and girls. What good does our work do in helping them succeed if they, despite our good efforts, die because of a misdiagnosed heart attack – knowing they would be alive had they been men?

Second, I have a wife, sisters, aunts, a mother, I love dearly. Knowing medical science may fail them at one point in their lifetimes, just because they were born female, worries and angers me to no end.

Finally, the health of half of our population should concern us all. If we want an equal society, we need to ensure women have access to healthcare services and treatments that meet their specific needs, and diagnostic tools that don't favour men.

Working towards change doesn't just benefit women. Like Michelle Obama once said: "Communities, countries and, ultimately, the world are only as strong as the health of their women." 

Sipho Mamize is General Manager of Afrika Tikkun’s centre in Diepsloot.

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