While the death toll from coronavirus is continuing to rise around the world, it has become obvious that sex and gender differences do play a role when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. British health experts Dr Bharat Pankhania and Sarah Hawkes explain why men are more likely to die from coronavirus than women.
According to sex-disaggregated data compiled by global researchers, there is a clear gender gap in coronavirus-related deaths with men proven to be more vulnerable to the disease than women.
Global Health 50/50, an initiative that advocates for gender equality in health, has compiled data on cases and deaths reported by sex across 35 countries. The initiative’s COVID-19 data tracker indicates that the proportion of deaths between men and women amounts to:
· 13.3 versus 7.4 (Italy);
· 4.7 versus 2.8 (China);
· 8.4 versus 4.7 (Spain);
· 10.6 versus 6.6 (The Netherlands);
· 4.0 versus 1.7 (Ireland).
Having unveiled the trend, the world’s health researchers are now struggling to understand why the virus is so much more deadly for males, naming biology, lifestyle and behaviour as the most likely factors being at play.
Risky Behaviour & Unhealthy Lifestyle
“I think the best answer to begin with is – we don’t hundred percent know why, right?” says Dr Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School, the UK. “We have many theories as to why. But the best answer is for unexplained reasons men seem to have more attrition than women”.
To illustrate his point Dr Pankhania suggests that “men undertake more hazardous activities starting from early life onwards” being exposed to more challenges to their health.`
According to BMJ Global Health blog, preliminary studies have indicated that patients with severe COVID-19 cases usually suffered from existing co-morbidities including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some chronic lung diseases. Statistics show that men are more likely to have these conditions than women. Researchers associate this difference to higher levels of risky behaviours which are more typical for males than females.
“What we’re working on is the hypothesis that we can see that having a risk of death from COVID-19 is also associated with having the presence of other diseases, particularly heart and lung diseases”, explains Sarah Hawkes, a medical doctor the director of the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health in the UK. “And from all of the work that we’ve done over many years, with diseases, heart and lung are more common in men compared to women. And we also see that many of the behaviours that lead to a risk of heart and lung disease are more common in men compared to women”.
Yet another problem is smoking: “I think smoking definitely plays a big role – in smoking related extra deaths from coronavirus as well”, Dr Pankhania notes.
Citing high lethality rates from COVID-19 among elderly people, the researcher highlights that “men who are 60 plus or even 50 plus would have been smokers more than women”.
Indeed, as of 2015, the global male-to-female ratio of smoking prevalence amounted to 36% of men and 7% of women. According to Global Health 50/50, consumption of tobacco products has been increasingly associated with adverse outcomes in COVID-19.
In general, “there are lots of how do you call it behavioural issues with men that I’ve clearly shown that the coronavirus is levelling them”, Dr Pankhania points out outlining diet, heart disease, weight, and smoking as the key factors.
“When you start putting all these things together, it appears that, because men undertake all these extra activities, they’re more vulnerable”, he highlights.