small bite big threat

Women and Vector-borne Diseases

This week began with World Health Day focussing on vector-borne diseases (VBD); viruses that can kill and usually have no vaccinations available, so prevention is key in stopping infection and their spread. Illnesses like Dengue; the fastest growing disease in the world with a 30 fold increase in incidence over the last 50 years, Malaria; #1 in a top ten list of fatal yet preventable diseases in Uganda and other sub-Saharan countries, and Lyme disease; common in Europe and North America, are three examples of vector borne diseases.

Vector-borne diseases account for at least 17% of infectious diseases and result in 1 million deaths annually according to WHO. Around half of the world’s population are at risk of contracting a VBD, and the poorest populations are most at risk. Lack of sanitation, clean drinking water and adequate housing are major factors in being able to prevent these diseases, and their spread, and something that is often in short supply in low to middle income countries.

Pregnant women, babies and small children are more susceptible to VBDs than the rest of the population; for a number of different reasons. For pregnant women, the immunosuppression caused by pregnancy plays a big role in their vulnerability – for example, they are four times more likely to contract malaria, and twice more likely to die from it than other adults. Children and babies are, of course, reliant on their carers for protection against the carriers of these diseases – mosquitos for dengue and malaria and in the instance of Lyme disease, ticks. Adequate clothing, the use of insect repellents and good hygiene all help in preventing VBDs.

Simple interventions such as insecticide treated nets (ITNs) - which if used properly can reduce the likelihood of contraction by up to 90% - are another way of stopping the spread of these infections further afield. Although the average cost of a mosquito net is just USD$4, this is out of reach for many where they are most needed. Interestingly, women who have the resources to do so are more likely to buy ITNs for their households than men. Other interventions include provision of safe drinking water, sanitation, covering of drains, better drainage to reduce stagnant water in communities where mosquitos can breed, and general health education so people are able to be actively involved in preventing the contraction and spread of these illnesses.

Because the physiological differences between men and women, and other social/gender norms make women more vulnerable to VBDs, there is an additional need to create health information and gender specific education relating to VBDs for women, to reduce infections and their spread. By making women more aware of the factors in their environment that pose a risk of infection and involving them in the solutions within their communities we are not only empowering women to build healthier lives and families, but also educating future generations as they in turn, educate their children.

Image via Etsy