The Current

'We have a very partial picture': Why one health writer wants more sex-based data on COVID-19

Statistics from some parts of the world that suggest men are more likely than women to die from COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for more sex-based health data, a British author argues.

'When there is a crisis, there is that sense we don't have time to talk about gender': Caroline Criado Perez

Some countries have reported higher COVID-19 death rates for men, however, there's little understanding about why that might be. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

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Statistics from some parts of the world that suggest men are more likely than women to die from COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for more sex-based health data, a British author argues.

"Bodies respond differently to viruses, to drugs, to all sorts of things, depending on the sex of the body," said Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

"So if you really want to know what's going on, you have to sex disaggregate your data."

In Italy, men have accounted for 71 per cent of deaths from COVID-19, while twice as many men as women have died from the disease in Spain. 

While COVID-19 infection and death rates are broken down by sex in some countries, it's not a universal standard. Canada currently only reports sex for confirmed cases. Advocates have similarly called for more race-based data to track the infections spread among minority communities.

Caroline Criado Perez is the author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed For Men. (Rachel Louise Brown; Abrams Press)

Criado Perez argues that in order to properly direct treatments and other interventions, a widespread effort to determine who is most affected by COVID-19 is needed. That includes more sex-specific data collection to confirm who has has been tested for COVID-19, who is confirmed to have the disease and who has died.

"You really need all three of those in order to really understand, for example, are more men dying because they're more likely to get it?" she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"Because we are not collecting systematically sex disaggregated data right from the beginning in all countries around the world, we have a very partial picture full of gaps," she added.

'Huge data gap' in medical science

The COVID-19 data disparity highlights a long-standing concern among health researchers, according to Criado Perez. 

For decades, she says, women's health has been underrepresented in medical research.

"Historically, the vast majority of data that we have collected in all areas — from economics to travel data to the workplace, but also in medical science — has been on men, and that includes on the male body," she said.

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She says that research has long seen the male experience and body as a universal template when it came to health, while the study of women was considered "niche" and "atypical."

"When there is a crisis, there is that sense we don't have time to talk about gender right now," Criado Perez said.

That type of thinking, she told Galloway, has led to a "huge data gap" in medical science.

But breaking down health data by sex can have positive impacts. 

Criado Perez recalls uncovering a study in the process of writing her latest book that compared how cells in both men and women fight an influenza infection.

What the study authors discovered was that cells inside the female body could use estrogen to protect against the common flu.

"So what you see there is this possibility that there is something going on in the connection between estrogen and the female cells that could be being used in fighting off viruses," she said.

She adds that women must be included in early trials, particularly for new drugs, in order to ensure they can work for both men and women.

"One of the things that is really frustrating at the moment, as we are doing drug research and as we are doing vaccine research, is we still aren't always doing that," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

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