As far as sex and gender are concerned, malaria seems at first to be an equal-opportunity killer; the parasite, transmitted by mosquitoes, affects women and men alike. Yet sex and gender intrude even into this seemingly isolated medical realm. As a report from the World Health Organization details, biological sex differences alter malaria outcomes—changes in the immune system, for instance, make pregnant women especially susceptible to the disease. Meanwhile, social notions of gender may have an effect on outcomes as well: men, working in fields, may be more frequently exposed to the disease, while women, caring for children and often lacking autonomy, may be less likely to seek treatment.
“Health is rarely only about health alone,” said Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (RIAS), as she opened a two-day conference titled “Who Decides? Gender, Medicine, and the Public Health.” A series of panels explored various intersections of the social and biological realms, ranging from gendered definitions of illness and inequities in research funding to political debates over access to care. As conference organizer Janet Rich-Edwards, associate professor of epidemiology and co-director of the RIAS Academic Ventures science program, declared, “The personal is the political is the physiological.”
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