Women’s Month should do more than recognise the crucial contribution women make to the country – it should also be a time to raise awareness of health issues impacting women. Pic: pexels.com

In the spirit of Women’s Month in South Africa, commemorated over the month of August, awareness and early screening for diseases impacting women are being urged.

Women’s Month should do more than recognise the crucial contribution women make to the country – it should also be a time to raise awareness of health issues impacting women, said Dr Nicola Lister.

Diseases such as HIV and breast cancer are among the key watch list. But here are more details on risk areas of concern which Lister notes from different areas of research and statistics.

  • Non-communicable diseases (NCDs): These include cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma) and diabetes. NCDs are among the most significant causes of death among South Africans today, accounting for six of the ten leading underlying causes of natural death. The global NCD Alliance reports2 that NCDs are the cause of death of around 16.8 million women around the world each year.
  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD): CVD is the largest killer of women worldwide and a growing problem in developing countries. It is estimated that by 2030 the number of annual deaths caused by CVD will rise from 17.1 million to 23.6 million. But due to misconceptions that CVD is a male disease, few women see it as a major threat to their health, says the World Health Organization. Women in low- and middle-income countries living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to CVD. In South Africa, the proportion of CVD deaths in women between 35 and 44 is 150% higher than that of women in the United States.
  • Hypertension: Hypertension or high blood pressure is the most common modifiable risk factor for CVD. Gestational hypertension, also referred to as pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH), is a condition characterised by high blood pressure during pregnancy. Gestational hypertension can lead to a serious condition called preeclampsia, also referred to as toxemia. With early detection, hypertension can usually be managed effectively.
  • Cancer: Women have nearly the same incidence of cancer as men do, with around three million women dying of cancer each year. Breast and lung cancer are the most common causes of cancer deaths among women, followed by colorectal, cervical and stomach cancers.
  • Diabetes: There were an estimated 143 million women with diabetes in 2010. By 2030, this number is expected to rise to 222 million. One form of diabetes, Gestational diabetes (GDM) -a glucose intolerance during pregnancy - develops in one in 25 pregnancies.  Diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death in women globally, with around 2.1 million women dying each year as a result of diabetes.
  • Tuberculosis: Tuberculosis (TB) is also a common health risk for women. While TB does affect more men than women, an estimated 35 million women worldwide contracted TB in 2015 alone, and TB can have particularly severe consequences for women, particularly in their reproductive years. TB among pregnant women increases the risk of low birthweight babies and perinatal deaths, and genital TB increases the risk of infertility.  In 2015, nearly half a million women died from TB, including 140,000 deaths among women who were HIV positive. Around 85% of these HIV-associated deaths were among women in Africa. TB screening is particularly important for women who have HIV or who have been exposed to TB.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and bacterial vaginosis (BV): STIs and BV are common infections of the vagina, and are widespread globally. The WHO reports that these conditions have important health consequences, including genital symptoms, pregnancy complications, infertility, enhanced HIV transmission, and psychosocial effects. The World Health Organization estimates each year, there are 357 million new infections with 1 of 4 STIs: chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis. More than 500 million people are estimated to have genital infection with herpes simplex virus (HSV), and more than 290 million women have a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The majority of STIs have no symptoms or only mild symptoms that may not be recognised as an STI.

* Dr Nicola Lister is the Chief Scientific Officer & Medical Director at Novartis Southern Africa.