As a result of significant reductions in maternal and infant mortality over the past few decades, we have much to celebrate in terms of improving health outcomes for people around the world.
Achievements in the realm of women’s health represent strides forward in the effort toward gender equality. When women are able to stay healthy throughout their lives, they have greater control over their own destinies — and that means their families and communities stand to greatly benefit as well.
International Women’s Day is an occasion for celebrating the progress that women are making. But there’s still a long road ahead, and we in the global health community owe it to all women to continue aggressively promoting their holistic well-being.
Last week I presented at the 1st Gender and Coronary Artery Disease (GenCAD) conference in Brussels on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which may be the greatest challenge we face in promoting both gender equality and health and well-being — two of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — in the 21st century.
We’ve certainly succeeded in lowering rates of maternal mortality and occurrences of communicable diseases like diarrheal diseases and TB, and that’s an achievement that deserves to be celebrated. But as countries around the world continue to develop, and as the number of people living in extreme poverty (living on less that USD $1.90 per day) continues to decrease, we’re seeing a rise in the significance of NCDs, which persist as a killer of both men and women.
For example, globally, we see that NCDs like ischemic heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases were among the leading causes of death in 1990. Almost three decades later, they’re still among the top causes of death (and, for that matter, causes of disability).
NCDs are often referred to as diseases of affluence. While that’s somewhat misleading, considering how many non-affluent people are affected by NCDs, the moniker exists because certain diet and behavioral norms that are more prevalent in high-income countries — such as consistently high calorie intake and a tendency for sedentary jobs as opposed to manual labor — give rise to the onset of NCDs like hypertension, stroke, diabetes and cancer. And as low - to middle-income countries (LMICs) become more developed, more industrialized, and less rural, NCDs are becoming more widespread among these populations.
Other behavioral norms are affecting public health too, and not just in LMICs.
The changing burden of disease is also observed in Europe, with NCDs accounting for all but one of the leading causes of death for women. Notably, we see increases not only in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (e.g. bronchitis and other respiratory infections) for women, but also lung cancer. In fact, the occurrence of such diseases in women is beginning to mirror their occurrence in men — no doubt reflecting the increased prevalence of smoking by women.
We need to pay attention to what we’re seeing in the developed, affluent countries of Europe, and take measures accordingly to prevent similar health crises from affecting people in LMICs. If we as the global health community are forward-thinking, and we stay a step ahead, we can ensure that health threats that have commonly affected men don’t begin to affect women as well.
It’s worth noting that all of this is of course predicated on an essential research practice at all levels of global health: disaggregation by sex and gender of health data collection and analysis.
To improve long-term health outcomes for women, women must be better represented in medical studies and research. The United Nations, its agencies (e.g. the World Health Organization), and other global health organizations must continue to be assertive in ensuring sufficient resources are directed towards the goal of reducing the burden of NCDs in women. When our approach to research and health systems development is truly gendered, then we can save millions of women dying prematurely.
On this International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the decades of progress that we’ve made, let’s renew our commitment to continue the important, urgent work of improving the lives of all women.