Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

3 innovations transforming women's health around the world

Women are spending more time in poor health than men, with women in the developing world disproportionately affected. Image: Shutterstock/Stockphitos

Andrea Willige
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Global Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • A new global health alliance aims to drive innovations in women's health, such as one-shot HPV vaccines and self-administering family planning solutions, to accelerate closing the gender health gap.
  • Women are spending more time in poor health than men, with women in the developing world disproportionately affected.
  • Addressing the gender health gap could generate significant economic benefits, according to a new report by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey.

Women spend more of their lives in poor health than men, resulting in 75 million years of life lost each year.

Addressing this gap could generate $1 trillion in global economic benefit by 2040, with most of the potential coming from women of working age.

This is the finding of a new report by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey, Closing the Women’s Health Gap: A $1 Trillion Opportunity to Improve Lives and Economies.

The gender gap adds up to 75 million disability-adjusted life years in 2040.
75 million life years are lost due to the gender health gap every year. Image: McKinsey

In response to the report’s findings, the World Economic Forum has launched the Global Alliance for Women’s Health to bridge the women’s health gap.

The alliance aims to not only improve billions of individual lives but also benefit societies and economies as a whole, based on evidence that better health is correlated with economic prosperity. To date, 42 organizations have joined the new alliance, with $55 million pledged toward the improvement of women’s health.

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“Women's health has been a really underinvested area of global health,” the alliance’s co-chair Dr Anita Zaidi, President of the Gender Equality Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told the Forum.

“This is a healthcare cost, it’s a cost to the economy, and it's a cost to women's lives for not being able to work and participate in the economy and be their best potential self in society.”

Top ten conditions by GDP impact
The top 10 conditions that affect women make up 50% of the impact of closing the women’s health gap. Image: Closing the Women’s Health Gap

Many areas that need to be addressed are unique to or disproportionately impact women, she explained, pointing to gynaecological diseases such as cervical cancer.

The top 10 of these alone would contribute more than 50% of the economic impact associated with closing the women’s health gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s report.

Innovations that show the impact of transforming women’s health

With greater awareness and funding, research can help to close the gap. Here are three examples of initiatives that underscore the impact the alliance is aiming to achieve.

1. One-shot HPV vaccines

Cervical cancer is the fourth most frequent cancer in women worldwide. Based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 600,000 new cases and 342,000 deaths were recorded in 2020. Around nine in 10 of these deaths happened in low- and middle-income countries.

The cause for most cervical cancers, the WHO says, is a recurrent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted disease. One effective way of preventing infection – and with that, cervical and other HPV-related cancers – is vaccination between age 9-14.

While a two-shot vaccine has been available in the developed world for more than a decade, too few girls and women in less developed regions have access to the vaccine. However, the WHO has updated its recommendations recently, following clinical studies that showed that just one shot of the vaccine can be effective for prevention. This would simplify rollout, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

“If every woman got one shot, every girl got one shot of HPV vaccine, you would prevent 350,000 women from dying every year,” Dr Zaidi said.


2. Self-administering family planning solutions

Rates of unintended pregnancies have declined globally over the past 30 years, according to a recent study by researchers from the Guttmacher Institute. However, there is a lot of variation in that decline, and some of the greatest disparities between planned and unplanned pregnancies happen in the developing world.

Research finds that nearly 40% of women in low- and middle-income countries who use a family planning solution stop within the first year. Often, the methods available don’t meet their needs or are too complex to get hold of.

New methods such as a once-a-month pill, an invisible skin patch and a six-month injectable could address some of these issues and make access to family planning solutions easier in the developing world.

For Dr Zaidi, a self-administered injection is another promising development that’s already available.

“It's a little bubble with the medicine in it and a tiny needle that you can use to inject it in your thigh. It protects you from getting pregnant for three to four months.”

She added: “To have a tool that you can control yourself, that’s game-changing. And this tool can now be used all around the world to help women control their own fertility.”


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

3. A plastic pad to diagnose post-partum blood loss

Another startling statistic highlighting the state of women’s health is that 70,000 new mothers a year bleed to death after childbirth. Postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) is the leading cause of maternal deaths globally, according to the WHO.

Dr Zaidi explained that, to date, diagnosing PPH had been a matter of visual inspection and experience to judge the amount of blood a woman has lost. But there is now a surprisingly simple solution: a plastic drape the woman lies on, which has a small pouch at the bottom that collects blood. A measuring scale enables clinicians to gauge whether the blood loss incurred during the delivery requires treatment.

A clinical trial combining the plastic drape with a set of PPH interventions recommended by the WHO across four African countries resulted in a 60% reduction in the rate of women experiencing severe bleeding.

“If this can be deployed around the world, this would save hundreds of thousands of lives of women dying in childbirth,” Dr Zaidi said.

Innovation in women’s health pays dividends

Simple measures such as the above – among many others – can have an enormous benefit to society, as Dr Zaidi explained: “We've estimated that for every dollar that you invest in women's health, it's actually a $3 return to society. This is not only investing in women's health, it's a very smart investment for society. When women are healthy, societies are healthy.”

The alliance will bring together a vast range of stakeholders with an interest in women’s health to drive new initiatives.

“It's raising public awareness for how much action is needed for women's health. And it's getting the attention of decision-makers to improve the quality of care that women deserve.”

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