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Global Medical Research Has Failed Women

“Am I going to die?” My roommate’s voice trembles as she searches online for answers about her late periods and the array of symptoms she’s experiencing. Sadly, this scenario is all too familiar. It’s ironic that disorders affecting half the world’s population still have unknown causes. Conditions as common as PCOS, endometriosis, and even PMS remain mysteries. But the issue doesn’t end there. Even diseases impacting both sexes often prioritize research based on male bodies as the standard. This leads to less funding, fewer women researchers at the forefront, and a general lack of awareness, all contributing to this injustice. And in some cases, this oversight costs women their lives.

How frequently do we, as women, find that when we enter our symptoms into Google, the results indicate that they are widespread, affecting a large fraction of the female population, yet the cause is almost always unknown? It doesn’t stop at the diseases associated with women but even the ones affecting both sexes.

In an article titled “Despite Decades of Promises, Health Research Still Overlooks Women,” The Guardian highlights significant disparities: “Women are twice as likely as men to die from heart attacks. When a nonsmoker dies of lung cancer, it’s twice as likely to be a woman as a man. And women suffer more than men from Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disease (eg. rheumatoid arthritis).” These disparities stem from various factors, including insufficient funding for research on women’s health, the assumption that findings from male-focused research can be extrapolated to women, and latent sexism, all of which hinder progress in understanding the implications of various diseases on women’s bodies.

In the early to mid-20th century, research in the United States was minimally regulated. Between the 1940s and 1970s, drugs like thalidomide and diethylstilbestrol were prescribed to pregnant women to prevent complications, despite the unknown risks to their babies. This led to tragic outcomes, with thousands of babies born with severe limb deformities due to thalidomide. In response, countries worldwide began stricter regulations on medication research, approval, and marketing to protect the public. In the US, these regulations initially excluded most women of reproductive age from early-stage drug research. Subsequently, clinical trials often focused on data primarily from white women. It wasn’t until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in federally funded clinical research. This legacy stems from decades of women being excluded from clinical trials. Reasons included concerns about pregnancy, menstrual cycles, and the perceived complexity of hormonal influences. Additionally, researchers once believed the debunked notion that women were too occupied with family to participate. Even laboratory mice are mostly male.

Women’s bodies operate differently than men’s, with distinct reproductive functions impacting them throughout their lives, including fertility, pregnancy, menopause, and various gynecological disorders and cancers. Despite these obvious differences, certain “gender-neutral” diseases like sleep apnea or heart attacks can be challenging to diagnose in women due to atypical symptoms compared to men. Research from Harvard Health indicates that while 70% of those with chronic pain conditions are women, 80% of pain research focuses on males. Conditions that disproportionately affect one sex, such as depression and headaches, tend to have a higher impact on women. Yet, diseases like migraine, headaches, endometriosis, and anxiety disorders receive disproportionately less funding compared to their impact on the population.

Women comprise half the global population, and their health is equally, if not more, important. Having women researchers in leading roles can improve research into often overlooked areas, as they may better understand the symptoms and experiences involved. Increased funding from both government and private sectors is crucial to support researchers effectively. Additionally, leveraging advanced technologies like artificial intelligence can help bridge the longstanding gender gap in health research by enabling tailored care to meet women’s unique needs.

It is ensuring that clinical trials and research studies include diverse populations, including women of different ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, designing studies that specifically address women’s health issues and consider gender differences in disease presentation, symptoms, and treatment responses along with raising awareness about the importance of including women in medical research among researchers, healthcare providers, and the general public and also, advocating for policies that mandate the inclusion of women in clinical trials and research studies, as well as policies that support gender equity in research funding and leadership positions. It’s not one person’s job but together, we can work towards ensuring that women are adequately represented in medical research and that their health needs are effectively addressed.

Ayesha Alim is a student pursuing Psychology Honours from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Sania Parween

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Written by Ayesha Alim

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