Scientists explain why more men contract coronavirus than women

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020 00:00 |
A Ndaragwa health official checks temperature of a passenger and her child near Wiyumiririe trading centre, on Nyahururu-Nyeri highway yesterday. Brenda urged Kenyans to strictly adhere to directives issued by the government. Photo/PD/ DAVID MACHARIA

As the coronavirus continues to cause havoc across the world, emerging statistics show that the virus—besides killing more elderly people—more men than women are dying.

It is a pattern occurring in almost every country as researchers frantically begin to collate data from national health authorities.

Whereas scientists have not pointed out the exact reasons, some arguments indicate that it may boil down to biology, lifestyle and behaviour.

For instance, in Kenya, while most of the victims who have succumbed to Covid-19 are reported to have had underlying ailments such as diabetes, the virus appears to pose a particular threat to men.

Out of the six people who have died from coronavirus in the country, five are men including a six-year-old boy.

“We are seeing with every country that provides us with sex-disaggregated data that men are more likely to die from the virus, anything from 10 per cent to more than twice as likely,” said Prof Sarah Hawkes, the director of the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health in the UK. 

And while scientists can’t say for certain why the current pandemic is discriminating by sex, it isn’t a total surprise.

“While scientists don’t know what’s causing the gender disparity in this current pandemic, smoking and drinking have been floated as possible theories.

Historically, men smoke more than women and the difference is particularly large in China, where nearly 50 per cent of men, but less than three per cent of women, smoke,” The Wired, a UK media outlet reported.

The statistics

The discrepancy was first noticed in China. An analysis of 44,672 confirmed cases from late 2019, when the virus first emerged in the city of Wuhan, up to February 11, found the death rate among men was 2.8 per cent compared to 1.7 per cent among women. 

Italy, whose death toll surpassed China’s on March 19, has followed a similar trend with a case fatality rate of 10.6 per cent in men, compared with six per cent in women, according to the country’s national health institute.

Even as opinion is divided in Kenya on the reasons leading to more men succumbing to the virus than women, culturally being the breadwinners, men are exposed to more interactions than their female folk. Out of the 172 confirmed cases, 100 are men, compared to 72 women.

Various experts who spoke to the People Daily gave varied explanations for the trend. Prof Matilu Mwau, a lead researcher in virology at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), said scientists are still grappling with many questions about Covid-19, one of them being its heavy impact on men.

“We don’t know why there are more men dying than women from this pandemic. Those are among the research questions that Kemri scientists have begun to interrogate,” he said yesterday.

He revealed the medical research fraternity increasingly believes that the virus is affecting different populations differently in the West and Africa, including the fact that it affects older populations more.

This, he said, explains why Africa with largely a youthful population is not as badly affected as Europe, which has a predominantly elderly population.

Other research questions they are working on include the impact of the virus on populations with predisposed conditions such as high blood pressure.

“These are some of the questions we have included in research proposals that have been written and submitted to ethical review boards who can look for answers to some of them,” he added.

Confusing strain

Mwau said scientists at Kemri had embarked on studying Covid-19 with a keen interest of knowing what type of virus it is.

He said: “We want to understand it because we are curious to see whether we are capable of making test kits for it here. We similarly want to know whether it is agreeable to make a vaccine here.”

At the Kenya AIDs Vaccine Initiative, the institute of clinical research, Prof Omu Anzala is leading another group of researchers who have started looking deeply into the virus.

He was, however, non-committal on why the virus impacts men more.

“As researchers we don’t like anecdotes…stories. This is going to take us a while to understand the disease, in order to be able to give a conclusive statement on it,” he said.

Dr Karimi Mutua, a paediatrician at Gertrude’s Hospital in Nairobi, says the Covid-19 pandemic is an unfolding phenomenon and it is hard to explain certain characteristics and trends that are emerging.

“People can speculate on difference in behaviours, immunity and hormonal balance but nobody is sure yet,” she says, adding that it is too early to pin down one factor with regards to its epidemiological traits.

Social demographics

According to a reproductive health rights advocate, Grace Muthoni Njuki, the social status defining the space for the two genders in society could be the puzzle.

“Men will go to social places more than women, especially at night. Even though women party, men usually party more. Then it might be a myth, but when it comes to sickness, women overcome more than men,” she added.

She said that gender roles also contribute as men tend to work away from home more than women.

“Even in the most sophisticated countries, there is no gender equality; most women either will be at home looking after family or working,” she said.

Zipporah Wangui, a gender activist, gives another interesting perspective noting that most men are not good in health-seeking behaviour.

“Men take time before they admit they are sick or before they go to hospital. They mostly play it down until it is too late,” she added.

Data from China first revealed a gender gap in deaths, with 64 per cent of male victims dying compared to 36 per cent of women, according to the Global Health 50/50 initiative.

In the two hardest-hit European nations, 71 per cent of the Covid-19 deaths in Italy were male while in Spain almost twice as many men as women have died.

“Undoubtedly, a part of this is biology, but a large part of this difference is also driven by gender behaviour, such as far higher levels of smoking and drinking among men compared to women,” said Prof Hawkes.

In France, figures from the Public Health Institute show that, from March 1 to March 22, 57 per cent of Covid-19 deaths were men with the average age being 81.

More on National