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Women’s Brain Project – Reflections on COVID-19

An interview with:

  • Antonella Santuccione Chadha, CEO and Co-Founder
  • Maria Teresa Ferretti, Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder
  • Annemarie Schumacher Dimech, President and Co-Founder

Prepared by Adriana Mancilla Galindo and Anna Dé

 

Introduction

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic has put into perspective the relevance of having differentiated data for men and women as there is a growing body of evidence that both genders are reacting to the disease in different ways. We asked the Co-Founders at the Women’s Brain Project for their views on this topic. The conversation is summarised in this blog post. If you want to listen the full interview you can check out our podcast here.

This is the second interview we have held with the Women’s Brain Project. If you would like to read our first interview from September 2019 in which they introduced the project and its objectives, please refer to our blog post here: Health Policy Talk.

 

1. FIRST OF ALL, TELL US ABOUT THE WOMEN’S BRAIN PROJECT. WHAT ARE YOUR LONG-TERM GLOBAL OBJECTIVES?  

The Women’s Brain Project (WBP) is an international non-profit organisation focused on sex and gender determinants of brain and mental health. The organisation aims to improve society’s understanding of the similarities and differences between men and women’s brains and to stimulate a global social and political discussion on gender and sex determinants of brain and mental health as a gateway to precision medicine. Launched in 2017, WBP recently celebrated its 3rd anniversary.

 

The organisation has achieved an incredible momentum in the production of scientific research and evidence on the impact that sex differences have on mental health and brain diseases. As active members of the scientific community, we are constantly working in a range of different areas including the preparation of scientific publications, writing new books or book chapters, preparing our annual flagship event, the  International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health (discussed later in this interview) and engaging with policymakers, pharmaceutical companies, and patient organisations.

 

Our long-term vision would be to establish our organisation as an institute, creating a Research Institute for Precision Medicine which would be based in Switzerland, but with the aim of having a global reach.

 

Our Institute would focus on generating evidence on sex and gender precision medicine, educating others on the area and increasing awareness across the population. We already have a virtual network of contributors who are generating such evidence, but we would like the wider community who are contributing to this topic to also join us.

 

The good news is that policymakers, pharmaceutical companies, and members of academia are interested in participating and we have received numerous endorsements for the Research Institute for Precision Medicine. We hope this can be officially announced by next year.

 

2. ANTONELLA – CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT WHAT THE WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2019 AWARD MEANS FOR THE ORGANISATION AND HELPS THE OBJECTIVES OF THE WOMEN’S BRAIN PROJECT.

In December of 2019, I was awarded Woman of the Year 2019 by Women in Business Switzerland. It was an unexpected achievement and a great honour, given it was voted on by the members of the organisation. The award recognises professional expertise from not only from a personal perspective but in this case also with regards to WBP as an organisation. Women in Switzerland wanted to recognise and to endorse the work being done at WBP. This award has increased the visibility of our organisation, for which we are very grateful, but it also means that we have new responsibilities.

 

“The main commitment is to make the best use of the recognition, continue our work, and position ourselves in and within the society. Above all, we want to bring our work on sex and gender differences in brain and mental health to the attention of the whole world.”


Antonella Santuccione Chadha, CEO and Co-Founder of WBP

3. PLEASE TELL US MORE ABOUT WBP’S WORK DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic more men than women seem to be dying from the virus. It is therefore particularly important to gather sex-disaggregated data and assess this with a gender lens. Particularly now that the search for a vaccine is of critical urgency, it is relevant to differentiate between sex and gender.

 

It is the first time that sex differences are so obvious and under the attention of the global community. If we stratify the data from the current epidemic, the majority of people dying are men. Unfortunately, not every country provides disaggregated data by sex and this can be visible on Global Health 5050’s website where they collect all data available from official government sources. From the available data, we observe that almost as twice more men than women are dying in Denmark, Greece and Italy with a ratio of 1.9 of male per female deaths.

 

Source: Global Health 5050. Accessed 19 April 2020. (The data is taken from the last date that sex-disaggregated data was available, so may not reflect current numbers of cases and deaths.) https://globalhealth5050.org/covid19/

Although the disease has affected both men and women equally, mortality rates are higher in men. Men have also suffered stronger symptoms, having a higher likelihood of being admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). From this, we can infer that there is a clear biological aspect to the impact of COVID-19, and it has, therefore, become crucial to collect and analyse disaggregated data, so we can begin to understand the gender aspect and the impact of the virus on men and women.

 

Our work at WBP is to advocate for the differences between men and women and how the impact on the brain and mental health varies accordingly. WBP has been very vocal about the relevance of precision medicine. Some examples of our articles can be found here:

 

“We believe that the collection of sex disaggregated data is an approach that will enable us to more thoroughly understand and evaluate the direct and indirect impact of COVID-19 and other diseases. It is essential to find treatments and develop preventive strategies that are effective and beneficial for everyone, but not as a one-size-fits all.”

 

Annemarie Schumacher Dimech, President and Co-Founder of WBP

4. WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON THE MENTAL HEALTH IMPACTS AND WHAT IMPLICATIONS THIS MAY HAVE IN A GENDERED CONTEXT?

At the start of April 2020, CARE and the International Rescue Committee published an article entitled Rapid Gender Assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic where they highlighted ways in which women are likely to suffer from the pandemic. 

They mentioned the limited sex-disaggregated data, unequal access to healthcare, the care-giving burden as unpaid care (work that could be a double-burden in women health workers) and a lack of gender balance and a gender lens in decision-making.

 

We believe that the psychological and sociological aspects should also be mentioned in the COVID-19 context. Most caregivers (both paid and unpaid) are women taking care of their family members. Unfortunately, with the preventive measures that the pandemic has imposed upon society, this situation has become even more stressful for them. Similarly, there are palliative care patients who cannot say their final goodbyes to their relatives.

 

There are other types of essential workers who are also predominately women that have been negatively affected by the virus socially, mentally, and physically. In Hubei, China for example 90% of healthcare workers are women.

 

The mental health impact of the quarantine and the social isolation and physical distancing that most of us are now experiencing is huge. There are some explanations behind this impact and visible differences among men and women:

 

  • The risk factors for stress, anxiety, and even depressive disorders increase due to the physical isolation, changes in daily routines, loss of employment, fear of the disease itself.
  • Women are at higher risk of developing mental disorders related to stress and there is a compound risk given our biology. Social isolation is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Let us not forget about the people who already have mental diseases. This restrictive situation has become a challenge for them and their therapists, especially because how they receive and give treatment respectively has changed completely.

A good starting point for addressing the mental health impact of COVID-19 on the population would be for governments to have clear communications with the public.

 

A Lancet article puts forward that having a clear communication strategy would mitigate the psychological impact of the disease. 

 

5. WHAT WOULD BE THE MAIN OPPORTUNITY IN CONDUCTING SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH THROUGH A GENDER LENS IN THE CONTEXT OF COVID-19?

There are several opportunities in the current situation:

 

  • Improve the way we do science and clinical development.
  • Learn there are differences in how the virus affects women and men but also differences in age and co-morbidities.
  • Carefully considering all these differences, understand how the disease is acting and what are the most effective treatments for it.
  • Consider socio-economic aspects affected to develop social policy strategies: income, education, employment, etc.
  • Have a clear epidemiological understanding of the virus, how it works, how it attacks the body, and how to target it with medicine and drugs.

These opportunities are true not only for COVID-19 but for every type of disease. This is a unique moment to improve the way science is being done to include development in technologies; what could almost be considered a silver lining of disruption for the world and societal systems to improve, so that any future such challenges are met with greater resilience. What we could have is a more precise picture to bring out the different needs of the different groups.

 

 

6. DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, HOW ARE YOU CURRENTLY ENGAGING WITH PATIENTS, CAREGIVERS, POLICYMAKERS AND OTHER STAKEHOLDERS?

WBP is a global organisation; we have always worked in a virtual manner. Our work has not changed significantly in the current crisis; however, we are now trying to scale it up. We aim to continue learning what the differences mean in the science sector and when they are relevant. We have hosted online workshops to engage with our followers and plan to host further workshops in the future.

 

The first virtual workshop took place on the 16th April 2020 in which we discussed “Sex and Gender Differences in the COVID-19 Pandemic”.

 

The next workshops will have different topics. We want to talk about the impact of the quarantine on mental health and society more broadly, the change in people’s lifestyles, and ethical implications that have arisen from this crisis. Of course, we are always open to suggestions from members of the public as to what topics we discuss at these workshops and continue to engage and exchange information with them.

 

Any interested parties can contact us through our website or send us an email at:

info@womensbrainproject.com

 

7. WHAT ARE YOUR KEY ACTIVITIES FOR THE REST OF 2020 AND INTO 2021?

Every year, we organise our International Forum on Women’s Brain & Mental Health, typically in Switzerland. The International Forum on Women’s Brain and Mental Health in 2019 focused on the topic of Sex and Gender Differences in Mental and Brain Health: The Gateway to Precision Medicine.

 

This year, the Forum is scheduled to take place on 19-20 September 2020. Given the COVID-19 crisis, we are exploring the possibility of hosting this on a virtual platform, and we should have a better idea on the exact format of the event in the coming weeks. You can register your interest here.

What we can confirm is the topic of this year’s Forum will focus on the Sex and Gender Differences in Brain and Mental Health Throughout the Lifespan. This will include topics such as migraine, dementia, mental health crises during adolescence, maternal mental health, and others – with COVID-19 integrated into the programme. We still expect high participation and debate.

 

As for activities in 2021, they all aim to achieve our long-term goal of establishing the Research Institute for Precision Medicine, with the overarching goal to make healthcare services sustainable across the world.

 

WBP has always been at the cutting edge of understanding sex and gender differences in health having been pioneers in this area, and we want to continue our work to have more detailed data for tailored gender decisions.

 

Our current activities include:

 

8. HOW CAN ORGANISATIONS AND INDIVIDUALS SUPPORT AND GET INVOLVED IN THE WOMEN’S BRAIN PROJECT? 

First, we would like to invite any interested parties to follow and engage with us on social media. This is the initial step to create a community where everyone feels included in our network and participates.

 

Follow us on social media (we’re on LinkedInTwitterInstagram, and Facebook) or sign up for our mailing list.

 

Second, we would like to invite anyone who wants to collaborate with us and who holds expertise in this area (whether it be scientific or organisational) to reach out and connect with us. By working together, we can create synergies and make a greater impact in research and medicine.

 

Third, you can support our work and promote it as a sponsor. This will provide us with the appropriate resources to make a difference in research and medicine.

 

“Our goal is to create a network, a community, a movement.”

 

Maria Teresa Ferretti, Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder of WBP

 

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