As of 18 Sept 2014, the cumulative number of Ebola cases (probable, confirmed and suspected) in the countries with widespread and intense transmission (i.e. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) stands at 5,335, with 2,622 recorded deaths. This equates to a mortality rate of 49%. In addition, countries with initial case or cases, or with localized transmission have 21 cases and 8 deaths in Nigeria and 1 case in Senegal. Approximately 45% of the total number of reported cases were recorded within the past four weeks1. A worse-case scenario puts the total number of fatalities at over 20,000 if the outbreak is not contained efficiently and effectively.
The official epidemiological data that is available is not disaggregated by sex and age, so it is impossible to get a clear understanding of what the actual situation is vis-à-vis gender disparities amongst reported cases.
Irrespective of the actual figures, this does not negate the potential for women and girls to be more at risk as victims of the outbreak. Historical evidence demonstrates the vulnerability of women and girls and as such, it is essential that gender is integrated into the consolidated response strategies. This has been attributed to some of the cultural and traditional practices in the affected communities of West Africa. These include:
Women are more likely to be front-line health workers or health facility service-staff (e.g. cleaners, laundry etc.) and as such they are more likely to be exposed to the disease – non-disaggregated data records 318 healthcare worker cases with 144 deaths in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia as of 18 September 2014. This equated to a mortality rate of 47%.
Norms and customs dictate that women and girls play the role of caretakers for ill family members. Feeding and washing persons infected with Ebola increases the risk they face of contracting the disease, through contact with bodily fluids of infected persons.
Similarly, women are often traditionally tasked with preparing dead-bodies for burial which again brings them into direct contact with the disease.
In addition, given that pregnant women are more likely to have contact with health services (antenatal care and delivery), they experience greater exposure to infections in health facilities. Also, Ebola has a devastating impact on fetuses, with most ending in spontaneous abortion and the only record of a child born after its mother was infected, lived for just three days5.