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Women's health: Is this the world’s best – and most under-financed – investment?

This image shows a women having a mammogram, illustrating the importance of women's health initiatives

Women's health initiatives can save lives, help communities and boost the economy. Image: Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Christina Östberg Lloyd
Senior Vice-President, Reproductive Medicine Maternal Health, Ferring Pharmaceuticals
Christian Sand Horup
Project Fellow, World Economic Forum
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Women's Health

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Women still die from preventable problems during pregnancy and childbirth, women are consistently diagnosed later than men and women experience significantly more adverse drug reactions than men.
  • All of these women's health factors are a result of gender inequality and they have far-reaching socio-economic implications.
  • The World Economic Forum's flagship initiative, Women's Health, works with a diverse group of stakeholders to showcase the socio-economic benefits of investing in women’s health.

Why are women still dying from preventable problems during pregnancy and childbirth? Why are women across all disease areas consistently diagnosed later than men? And, why are women experiencing significantly more adverse drug reactions than men?

The answer to these women's health problems is gender inequality. This impacts every part of girls' and women’s lives, with far-reaching socio-economic implications. Improvements in women’s health and wellbeing are key to closing the gender gap, with reproductive and maternal health a priority. At current rates, it will take 132 years to close the gender parity gap. We need, therefore, a fundamentally different narrative and approach to advance women’s health.

A healthier future starts in the lab

The results of insufficient investment, research and products in the space of women’s reproductive and maternal health are glaring. Globally every day, more than 800 women and nearly 7,000 newborns die from preventable pregnancy-related complications, with an additional 5,500 babies stillborn.

A UK-commissioned report, Healthy Mum, Healthy Baby, Healthy Future, calls out the “profound lack of research activity,” highlighting that in the past 40 years, only two new drugs have been approved for use in pregnancy. This lack of up-to-date information leaves pregnant women and their physicians in the dark about whether to continue with certain medicines during pregnancy.

This lack of priority for women’s health and reproductive biology as a scientific field is systemic. It starts in our educational institutions. Since the Thalidomide tragedy in the 1950s and until 1993, the FDA recommended excluding women of childbearing potential from Phase I and early Phase II clinical trials. We carry this bias with us in research and clinical settings to this day. Women are consistently underrepresented in clinical trials and many drugs currently used for female-specific conditions have never been tested on women in clinical trials.

In the US, a recent study published in Contemporary Clinical Trials, covering over 1,400 device and drug trials and more than 300,000 participants between 2016 and 2019, found concerning gaps in women’s representation in research related to three public health concerns – cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorders and cancer. Women are not just 'small men.' When designing clinical trials, important cellular and molecular differences in male and female bodies must be considered.

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Investing in women’s health is the smart thing to do

Inequalities and discrepancies persist in women’s health despite there being tremendous benefits to closing the gender parity gap. According to McKinsey Global Institute, gender equality globally, including equality in work and economic opportunity, would raise global GDP by up to $28 trillion. Women’s maternal and reproductive health is acknowledged as a key driver of achieving such equality. Not only is it a moral imperative, but meeting women’s health needs and improving gender equity is an all-round smart solution – for the individual, society and economic prosperity. After all, a woman’s health lays the foundation for her children’s health, her family, her community and for generations to come.

The World Economic Forum launched its flagship initiative, Women’s Health, last year. One of its workstreams, championed by Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Organon LLC and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, focuses on showcasing the socio-economic benefits of investing in women’s reproductive and maternal health. Working with a diverse group of stakeholders, our aspiration is to take a 360-degree view of how we can contribute to changing the status quo, so we can fulfil the untapped potential of women as a force for a more just and sustainable future.

As one of the few companies that continue to invest in researching novel solutions that address unmet needs in pregnancy and birth, Ferring is dedicated to bringing about positive change for women and girls around the world. Ferring has a long history of public-private-academic partnerships and it is through multi-lateral engagement that it will be able to drive long-lasting impact. Platforms, such as the Annual Meeting, present us with important breakthrough moments.

An invitation to engage

For too long, we have been communicating in an echo chamber of already convinced stakeholders. Now we need to break through and bring the opportunity of investing in girls' and women’s health to the attention of heads of state, ministers of finance, corporate leaders, donors and agenda-setting media. The coalition will be strongly represented at the Annual Meeting with a mission to challenge the status quo for women’s reproductive and maternal health by:

1. Building new evidence-based investment cases that showcase the socio-economic returns for advancing girls' and women’s health

2. Co-creating a new narrative that resonates with stakeholders in the political, financial and corporate spheres for why investing in women’s health is the smart thing to do.

3. Mobilizing a broad coalition of stakeholders willing to advance this agenda together with us

We invite interested parties to reach out to learn more about how to become involved in this important movement, so we can achieve this goal together.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalHealth and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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