On International Women’s Day, remembering malaria’s impact on women

Jackeline Chishimba and daughter Antonette Nyambe at Mandia community health post. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

By Stacey Naggiar
Advocacy and Communications Officer, MACEPA, and Global Health Corps Fellow

Ladies. When it comes to malaria, we are disproportionately affected compared to our male counterparts. And it has nothing to do with the fact that only female mosquitoes transmit the deadly parasite (but thanks a lot, Anopheles).

Photo: Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

Women are more severely impacted by malaria because of how it takes hold on those who are pregnant, increasing the risk of complications and death for both mother and child. The Roll Back Malaria Partnership estimates that each year, malaria in pregnancy is responsible for 10,000 maternal deaths globally and in sub-Saharan Africa it accounts for 20 percent of stillbirths and 11 percent of newborn deaths.

In pregnant women, formation of the placenta, the blood-rich organ responsible for transferring nutrients from mother to baby, presents a new place for blood-thirsty malaria parasites to bind. A placenta infected with malaria becomes compromised and fails to do a good job of providing nutrients to the fetus and increases the risk for maternal and fetal anemia, abortion, stillbirth, preterm birth, and low birth weight for infants.

Some groups of women face an even higher risk, notably those co-infected with HIV and women who become pregnant during adolescence. Research suggests that in sub-Saharan Africa, the younger a woman is when pregnant, the less likely she is to seek health services.

Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

These are the harsh realities of a harsh situation. But a powerful prevention tool exists in the form of intermittent preventive treatment (or IPTp). A WHO-recommended method, IPTp involves giving pregnant women living in areas of high malaria transmission a drug called sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) beginning in their second trimester, regardless of whether or not they actually have malaria. It works to reduce the incidence of malaria, maternal and fetal anemia, low infant birth weight, and neonatal mortality.

The introduction of IPTp in sub-Saharan Africa has reaped huge benefits. Between 2009 and 2012, nearly 94,000 newborn lives were saved by interventions targeting malaria in pregnancy (which also includes insecticide treated nets and folic acid supplements). And in the last five years, there’s been a five-fold increase in the number of women receiving more than three doses of IPTp in 20 African countries. The World Health Organization estimates that 35 million women can benefit from IPTp each year.

This is commendable progress, but as long as malaria continues to be a problem for women, women in turn must be part of the solution. One piece of that solution should be increasing opportunities for female leaders in communities and on the global stage with the hope that leveling the playing field will elevate issues that specifically impact women.

Dr. Nanthalile Mugala, program leader at PATH Zambia, told me, “Women should take up leadership positions in any area at all. Malaria is just one of them.”

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