The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a comprehensive report entitled “Women and health: today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda.” The report documents the difficulties that women worldwide face when seeking healthcare at all stages of life. Findings in the report indicate that though women live six to eight years longer than men, on average, they often lack essential healthcare throughout their lives.
According to Reuters, women seek medical services more often than their male counterparts, especially before, during, and after pregnancy. In addition, women in the United States pay approximately 48 percent more than men for healthcare services. The report discusses the fact that in many nations “sexual and reproductive health services tend to focus exclusively on married women,” therefore assistance during childbirth can be particularly difficult to access for “unmarried and marginalized women, teenagers and sex workers.” Further, the WHO report notes that 99 percent of the estimated 500,000 women who die during childbirth each year are in the developing world where there is an extreme shortage of medical supplies and trained healthcare providers.
The Boston Globe reports that 15 percent of deaths in adult women worldwide occur in maternity, and one in five deaths among women in this age group is linked to unsafe sex. The WHO report indicates unsafe sex, stemming from the dearth of information regarding safer sex strategies and contraception, has also contributed to the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. In sub-Saharan Africa, one in four women who wish to delay or stop bearing children do not use any family planning methods, according to the WHO. A National Public Radio (NPR) report indicates that HIV is the number one killer of women ages 15 to 49 worldwide. Further, in 2007, 15.5 of the 30.8 million global cases of HIV-positive adults were women. Reports indicate that the largest portion of these individuals live in Africa, where six percent of women of childbearing age have the disease. NPR reports that, per the CIA World Factbook, half of the women ages 25 to 29 in Swaziland are infected with HIV – a small nation with a total population of one million people, 26.1 percent of whom are HIV-positive.
Women in resource-limited regions are at a particular disadvantage, as these areas often lack access to screening and treatment resources for diseases like cervical cancer, the second most common type of cancer in among women. A study of the introduction of the HPV vaccine published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 stated “Of 274,000 deaths due to cervical cancer each year, more than 80% occur in developing countries, and this proportion is expected to increase to 90% by 2020.” Complications related to pregnancy, including unsafe abortion procedures, are among the leading causes of death among girls aged 15 to 19 in developing nations. Though these issues are substantial concerns in middle- and high-income nations, the WHO report indicates that road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death in girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in these regions. Among women over the age of 60, chronic diseases account for almost half of the deaths worldwide, and cardiovascular disease – generally considered a “male disease” – is the primary cause of death for this age group.
Discussing the importance of the comparative women’s health report, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, said “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…It’s time to make sure that women and girls get the care and support they need to enjoy a fundamental human right at every moment of their lives, that is, their right to health.” The overview statement for the report echoes this sentiment, explaining that “we will not see significant progress as long as women are regarded as second-class citizens in so many parts of the world…women are excluded from educational and employment opportunities…and have no freedom to spend money on health care, even if it means saving their own lives.”