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Coronavirus: Why are more men than women dying?

Figures from across the world show that men are more likely to die from the virus than women. Credit: Belga

As the new coronavirus (Covid-19) figures from all over the world are being reported on, it seems that more men than women are dying from the consequences of the virus.

Even though men and women are equally at risk of contracting the coronavirus, more men become seriously ill, and they die more often too, according to figures from across the world. “The honest answer is none of us know what is causing the difference,” said professor Sarah Hawkes, director of the UCL Centre for Gender and Global Health, to The Guardian.

In Italy, over 70% of the people who have died from the virus are men, and the Netherlands reports about 65% male casualties. Spain even reported that twice as many men as women seem to be dying from the virus. In Belgium, too, the lives of more men than women are in danger, according to the latest figures.

“It has to do with who we are testing,” said professor Steven Van Gucht to De Morgen. “In the younger categories, health care providers are represented more, professions that are more often performed by women. Tests in older groups, however, show that more infected men than women. And especially in those groups, more people will be hospitalised, including those who are seriously ill,” he said.

Men seem to be at greater risk of becoming seriously ill. However, mortality rates broken down by gender do not exist in Belgium, for the time being, but we can count on men to be in the majority, said Van Gucht.

“There are so many factors that can play a role and influence the figures,” said professor Steven Callens, infectious disease specialist at the UZ Gent, to Het Nieuwsblad. “For example, it is possible, but this is pure speculation, that more men became infected in the initial period. I’m just throwing something out there now, but it is for example possible that they went to football games more often, and the virus was passed on more there,” he added.

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“In any case, it is true that people getting treatment early on in an epidemic, are cared for differently from those getting sick more towards the end. We are still learning every day, and that could affect the care and mortality rates,” Callens added.

There are several other biology-related theories, that could possibly provide an explanation, according to Van Gucht. “With SARS and MERS, other coronaviruses, a similar difference was determined. Possibly the hormones estrogen and testosterone play a role. Tests on mice have shown that the female hormone estrogen played a protective role,” he added.

Additionally, genes play an important role: the X-chromosome carries a lot of immunity genes. Women have two of them, but men have one X and one Y chromosome, meaning that women have twice as many of these defence genes.

A difference in lifestyle could also be an explanation. “On average, men smoke and drink more than women,” said environmental medicine professor at the KU Leuven Lode Godderis, to Het Nieuwsblad.

“A lot of patients die because they have underlying disorders. We’re talking about lung problems caused by smoking, but diabetes and obesity can also cause problems such as heart disease,” he said. “It could well be that men have more of these underlying disorders. If you’ve smoked all your life and then get the coronavirus, it might cause trouble more easily,” Godderis added.

However, none of these theories has been proven. “We cannot assume the figures are already correct. Either way, analysis is for later, then many students will do their master’s thesis on it,” said Callens. “For now, we have to treat everyone first, and that is still the same for men and women,” he added.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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