WHO calls for more action needed on men's health

Women all over the world are outliving men and so more action is needed to improve men and boys’ health, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

More than 140 million children will be born in 2019, with the boys expected to die 4.4 years younger than the girls of average (69.8 years v 74.2 years).

While life expectancy increases with wealth (both between countries and within countries), the average gap between male and female life expectancy at a national level, gets wider as countries develop.

The key to addressing these gender health gaps, says the WHO report, is to reduce men’s exposure to risk factors and to increase men’s access to health services, in ways that minimize gender differences in health outcomes and maximize health gains for everyone.

What's Killing Men? 

The WHO report – World Health Statistics Overview 2019 – found that more than 80% of the leading causes of death (33 out of 40) contribute more to reduced life expectancy in males than in females.

For males, the main causes of death that contribute to a lower life expectancy than females worldwide, in order, are:

  • Heart disease
  • Road injuries
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
  • Stroke
  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • TB
  • Prostate cancer
  • Interpersonal violence

For females, the three conditions most likely to reduce life expectancy, compared with males, are:  

  • Breast cancer
  • Maternal conditions
  • Cervical cancer

Sex Difference or Gender Difference?

The WHO report aims to make a distinction between sex-specific health conditions, such as prostate cancer and cervical cancer, and gender-related factors that may result in differential health outcomes. One example given is that men and women may be exposed to different risks for work-related injuries or illnesses, due to the gender-based division of labour.

The report also claims women’s access to health services may be limited by lack of access to and control of household financial resources, caregiving roles, and restrictions on their mobility; whereas men’s use of health services may be influenced by masculinity norms in which seeking health care is not seen as manly.

This overlooks one of the key contributions that the men’s health sector has made to our understanding of health-service utilization, that the best way to improve men’s access to services is to ensure they are deliver in more male-friendly ways.

The Health Sector Must Respond to men’s needs

Despite WHO’s failure to acknowledge the value of male-friendly approaches to men’s health, the report clearly recommends that health sectors worldwide should take action to improve men and boys' health by: 

  • Considering sex and gender differences and how they result in male disadvantage
  • Developing policies and programmes that are responsive to the needs of men
  • Taking account of differences in men’s and women’s exposure to risk factors
  • Taking action to increase men and boys access to health services
  • Targeting action to areas where sex of gender differences contribute most to men’s poorer health outcomes

Tackling The Social Factors That Shape Men’s Health

WHO also acknowledges that many of the factors that influence health and use of health services are beyond the traditional remit of ministries of health. The report recommends that multi-sectoral approaches to that address underlying factors that shape our health, such as gender and socioeconomic inequalities.

However, the WHO report also states that the health sector has a key role in raising awareness of these issues, and can be the catalyst that sparks the development of gender-sensitive and gender-responsive policies and programmes across other areas of government.

A Gender Inclusive Approach

WHO’s recommendations do not only apply to men and boys’ health, but to areas where women and girls face health inequalities too. Furthermore, the WHO report recommends specific action to ensure the health needs of transgender people are met.

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