10 Dhu al-Qi'dah 1445 - 18 May 2024
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Eye of Dubai
Healthcare | Friday 8 March, 2024 7:12 am |

Beyond celebration: achieving health equity for women in the MEA Region

By: Pelin Incesu - Area Vice President, Middle East and Africa


International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate the progress that has been made by and for women, whilst also shining a light on the persistent inequities that women continue to face across all of society, including in health.


My own professional journey in healthcare spans decades and encompasses my initiation as a medical student all the way to my current leadership role within one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. Throughout this time, I have been proud to witness both the resilience of women and the transformative power of dedicated action when it comes to removing the remainingbarriers that stand in the way of gender health equity.


In the Middle East, there has been undeniable progress on women’s health in recent decades. Female life expectancy in parts of the region has ascended to 75 years, most births are now attended by a skilled health professional, and major women’s health issues like breast and cervical cancer are receiving increasing attention.


Moreover, the percentage of women in the region’s healthcare workforce is growing, part of a global shift that heralds a transformative era in healthcare provision and policy-making. The historic appointment of Dr. Hanan Balkhy of Saudi Arabia as the first female Regional Director of the World Health Organization's Eastern Mediterranean Region (WHO EMRO) marks a significant moment in this shift and also highlights the importance of health workforce leadership and not just participation, something that is too often overlooked when you don’t take the time to properly break down the data.


This advancement is echoed in the strides made in the private sector by companies like AstraZeneca, which has achieved a remarkable 50.1% of women in senior management roles and above, showcasing a commitment to gender equality that transcends borders and industries.


Recognizing the barriers that women continue to face in the Middle East, AstraZeneca is collaborating with partners across the region to research the cultural and societal challenges women face in advancing their careers, with a specific focus on the healthcare industry. This project will build on our previous work to convene partners across the healthcare ecosystem to collectively address the challenges and create a culture where young women can thrive and succeed in the workplace.


However, despite all this progress, real challenges persist. A recentreport by the World Economic Forum on women’s health gapshighlighted that women on average spend a quarter more of their lives in poor health than men. This has a ripple effect on theirproductivity at home, in the workforce, and in the community and earning potential, and addressing the gap could benefit the global economy by as much as USD$1 trillion. This is where the connection between health equity and health system sustainability and resilience becomes all too clear.


One of the specific inequities spotlighted in the report is women’s access to a timely and accurate diagnosis. For instance, a study conducted in Denmark across 21 years showed that women were diagnosed later than men for more than 700 diseases. For cancer, it took women two-and-a-half more years to be diagnosed, for diabetes, the delay was four-and-a-half years.


This feels inherently connected to the fact that women across the world still face cultural barriers which limit their autonomy over healthcare. In the Middle East, many women are not empowered to make decisions related to their own health, and in some countries fewer than 10 percent of women are free to make these choices.


This is part of what drives my commitment to improving healthcare for women, particularly breast cancer care, in the region. Every year, there are over 130,000 new cases of breast cancer in the Middle East, a number which is predicted to nearly double by 2045.At the same time, mortality rates for the disease remain stubbornly high compared to much of the rest of the world, in large part due to late diagnoses. Through targeted research into the barriers women face in accessing breast cancer screening, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, I am determined to build understanding and awareness across the region and offer solutions that will significantly impact the trajectory of this disease burden on women's health. At the same time, through programmes like Cancer Care Africa and the Young Health Programme, AstraZenecacontinues to work with governments and communities to pioneer new and impactful ways to empower women and improve health equity across the region.


Today might be International Women’s Day, but our commitment to gender equity in health must be ongoing and steadfast. Of course,we must celebrate our successes, but at the same time we mustacknowledge the depth of remaining challenges, assemble our collective will, and direct it towards solutions so that we can ensure that every woman in this region and across the world attains the health equity she rightfully deserves.


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