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Why the Coronavirus Seems to Hit Men Harder Than Women

Women mount stronger immune responses to infection, scientists say. And in China, men smoke in much greater numbers.

In China, men are dying at higher rates following infection with the coronavirus. There may be several explanations, scientists say. 
Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This week, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention published the largest analysis of coronavirus cases to date. Although men and women have been infected in roughly equal numbers, researchers found, the death rate among men was 2.8 percent, compared with 1.7 percent among women.

Men also were disproportionately affected during the SARS and MERS outbreaks, which were caused by coronaviruses. More women than men were infected by SARS in Hong Kong in 2003, but the death rate among men was 50 percent higher, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Some 32 percent of men infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome died, compared with 25.8 percent of women. Young adult men also died at higher rates than female peers during the influenza epidemic of 1918.

A number of factors may be working against men in the current epidemic, scientists say, including some that are biological, and some that are rooted in lifestyle.

When it comes to mounting an immune response against infections, men are the weaker sex.

“This is a pattern we’ve seen with many viral infections of the respiratory tract — men can have worse outcomes,” said Sabra Klein, a scientist who studies sex differences in viral infections and vaccination responses at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We’ve seen this with other viruses. Women fight them off better,” she added.

Women also produce stronger immune responses after vaccinations, and have enhanced memory immune responses, which protect adults from pathogens they were exposed to as children.

The Coronavirus Outbreak

  • What do you need to know? Start here.

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

“There’s something about the immune system in females that is more exuberant,” said Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.

But there’s a high price, she added: Women are far more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, in which the immune system shifts into overdrive and attacks the body’s own organs and tissues.

News Credit – Roni Caryn Rabin From New york times

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