When people started dying from Ebola in West Africa in March, Martha Anker, a former statistician in communicable disease surveillance and response at the World Health Organization (WHO), began watching the news to see whom primarily the terrible disease would strike. Sitting in her house in Massachusetts, Anker had a gut feeling: that Ebola, as it had in the past, would claim women as its primary victims.
As it turns out, Anker was right.
On Aug. 14, the Washington Post reported that across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone collectively, women have comprised 55 to 60 percent of the dead. In Liberia, the government has reported that 75 percent of victims are women. “I felt very sad when I read that thing from the Washington Post,” Anker says. “I’m so sorry to be right.”
Back in 2007, Anker wrote in a WHO report, “Differences in exposure between males and females have been shown to be important factors in transmission of EHF [Ebola hemorrhagic fever]. Therefore, it is important to understand the gender roles and responsibilities that affect exposure in the local area.”
That entreaty clearly didn’t find its way to West Africa when this current outbreak began. Ebola spreads through contact with blood and other bodily fluids, and in Liberia, as in neighboring countries, women are usually the primary caregivers for the sick. They continue to be during the current epidemic — they stay in their homes and become infected by their children or husbands instead of seeking out doctors and nurses for their loved ones. Rarely are the roles reversed. “If a man is sick, the woman can easily bathe him but the man cannot do so,” says Marpue Spear, the executive director of the Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL). “Traditionally, women will take care of the men as compared to them taking care of the women.”
It shouldn’t take so many deaths — more than 1,200 at the time of this writing — to realize how attention to gender dynamics might help save lives (in this case through, among other things, targeted messaging to women about the importance of using protective measures at home or allowing loved ones to be cared for by trained professionals). Indeed, there shouldn’t have to be Cassandras like Anker — for Ebola and other diseases.
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