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Explained: Coronavirus seems to kill more men than women. Why?

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Men seem likelier than women to die of the novel coronavirus disease. What is the reason for this?

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: April 18, 2020 7:02:20 am
Explained: The coronavirus disease seems to kill more men than women. Why? A man walks across a street during the coronavirus outbreak in Madrid, Spain, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo: Bernat Armangue)

Coronavirus (COVID-19): That men seem likelier than women to die of the novel coronavirus disease was reported early on in the outbreak — and a paper by Chinese researchers published in mid-February analysed data from Wuhan, Hubei, and China as a whole to calculate a fatality rate of 2.8% for men, as compared to 1.7% for women.

In subsequent weeks, as the footprint of the disease covered the entire planet, the same pattern was detected in almost all countries that released sex-aggregated data — including Italy, Iran, South Korea, Germany, and France. Most recently, data from the national statistics office of the United Kingdom — where over 13,700 people had died by Thursday evening — showed that men were twice as likely as women to die from COVID-19. India does not provide consolidated sex-aggregated data on fatalities.

The question is, why? The short answer: researchers don’t yet know for sure. But several hypotheses have been articulated.

One early theory, based on the deaths in China, was that men were more vulnerable because they were more likely to be smokers (about half of all men in China smoke, whereas only about 2 in 100 women do), and therefore, more likely to have a lung condition.

The hypothesis has been backed by data from China in a scientific paper; however, the gap between the percentages of smoker men and women is not as wide as in say, Italy, Spain, or the United States, all of which have seen several times the number of deaths that have occurred in China.

It has also been argued that smokers are likely to touch their mouths more often, and that some could be sharing cigarettes.

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Another hypothesis is based on behavioural factors such as the likelihood of women being more careful than men about washing their hands using soap, and being more likely to heed public health advice. But generalising these traits across populations and cultures is unscientific.

Microbiologist Prof Sabra Klein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told The Guardian that she did not think that “smoking is the leading factor”, and that “there must be something universal that’s contributing to this”.

Research, including by Prof Klein, has shown that men have a lower innate antiviral immune response to a range of infections including hepatitis C and HIV (though COVID-19 is yet to be specifically studied), The Guardian reported. “Their immune system may not initiate an appropriate response when it initially sees the virus,” Prof Klein told the newspaper.

Don’t miss these articles on Coronavirus from the Explained section:

‣ How coronavirus attacks, step by step

‣ Mask or no mask? Why the guidance has been shifting

‣ Besides a face cover, should I wear gloves when I go outdoors?

‣ How the Agra, Bhilwara and Pathanamthitta Covid-19 containment models differ

‣ Can coronavirus damage your brain?

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