Medicine Cabinet — Reiner W. Gloor

March is traditionally celebrated as International Women’s Month. And since half the world’s population are women, it’s timely and vital to discuss the top 10 health issues plaguing women today. This article is for all the ladies out there and in our lives.

Top women’s health issues you need to know about

According to Dr. Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health through the Life-course of the World Health Organization (WHO), these are the top women’s health issues. These findings were first published in March 2015 for International Women’s Day in The Huffington Post.

Breast and cervical cancers are two of the most common cancers affecting women today. Early detection is key in keeping women alive and healthy. According to the latest global figures, each year half a million women die from cervical cancer and another half a million from breast cancer. Many of these deaths occur in low and middle income countries where screening, prevention, and treatment are almost nonexistent, and where the human papilloma virus vaccine has yet to take hold.

Reproductive health is another area that needs attention. Sexual and reproductive health problems are responsible for one third of health issues for women between the ages of 15 and 44. A huge risk factor is unsafe sex, especially for women in developing countries such as ours. This makes it even more important for reproductive health services to reach the women who need it.

Maternal health is a major issue and even a key part of the Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations. While many women now benefit from a massive improvement in care during pregnancy and childbirth, many benefits still do not extend everywhere. Numbers as of 2013 paint a grim picture, with 3,000,000 women still dying from complications in pregnancy and child birth all over the world. Most of these deaths could have been prevented had some basic services been in place.

Women might not be aware of it but it is they who bear the brunt of new HIV infections. Many young women all over the world struggle to protect themselves against sexual transmission of HIV and to get the necessary treatment. This also leaves them vulnerable to tuberculosis which is one of the leading causes of death in low-income countries of women between 20-59 years. In the Philippines, the HIV epidemic is growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Most of the new infections in the country still come from sexual contact, especially since current policies make it difficult for health workers to promote safe sex. But in places like Cebu, for example, the spike in new cases can be attributed to intravenous drug use. This is a worrisome trend that needs solutions from many fronts. Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are also causes for concern.

Women are very vulnerable to different forms of violence, especially physical and sexual violence either by a partner or someone else. The statistics for the whole world say that one in three women under 50 has experienced some form of violence. In the Philippines, the National Demographic and Health Survey of 2008 conducted by the National Statistics Office revealed that one in five women aged 15-49 has experienced physical violence since age 15, with 14.4% of married women having experienced physical abuse from their husbands, and 37% of separated or widowed women having experienced physical violence. One in 25 women aged 15-49 who have ever had sex experienced forced first sexual intercourse, and one in 10 women within the same age bracket have also experienced sexual violence. This is despite having Republic Act No. 9262 in effect, otherwise known as “Anti-Violence Against Women and Children Act of 2004.” There is a need for health workers to be alert to violence so they can help prevent it and provide support for victims who have experienced it.

Evidence suggests that women are more prone than men to experience anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints — physical symptoms that cannot be explained medically. Depression is the most common mental health problem for women, and suicide is a leading cause of death for women under 60. Helping sensitize women to mental health issues, and giving them the confidence to seek assistance is vital. In the Philippines, independent legislation regarding mental health has yet to be passed. Currently, we only have laws regarding the governance of the provision of mental health services. These laws are contained in other laws, including the Penal Code, the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons, the Family Code, and the Dangerous Drug Act, among others.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are definitely a concern for women the world over. In 2012 alone, 4.7 million women died from NCDs before they reached the age of 70, most of them in low- and middle-income countries. They died as a result of road traffic accidents, harmful use of tobacco, abuse of alcohol, drugs and substances, and obesity. NCDs are the top killers in the Philippines and accounted for 57% of total deaths in 2008. Many Filipinos are exposed to NCD risk factors due to tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity.

Adolescent girls are not immune to challenges. They are particularly vulnerable to sexual and reproductive health issues such as STIs, HIV, and pregnancy. It is estimated that there are about 13 million adolescent girls (those under 20 years of age) that give birth every year. Complications from these pregnancies and childbirths are the leading cause of death for young mothers everywhere.

As women age, they continue to face obstacles. Older women may have fewer pensions and benefits and may have limited access to quality health care and social services than their male counterparts. Combine the greater risk of poverty with other conditions of old age like dementia, this makes them susceptible to risk of abuse and poor health.

Despite the huge strides that medical science and technology and society has made in general, there remain many hurdles to providing the help women need in general. But we celebrate these strides anyway and hope that the shared efforts of governments, agencies, the private sector and organizations can place policies that will truly help and can be sustainably implemented. The Department of Health and PhilHealth have been invaluable in putting programs in place to help our countrywomen. We will elaborate on these programs and other pressing health issues all throughout the month as we celebrate women. Do wait for these articles.

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