At last there’s someone who treats us like ladies, so what if it’s only a virus!
Just when you think we’ve learnt all there is to about bugs, something pops up that immediately makes one sit up and take notice. How many of us women have lamented constantly about ‘their whining babies’: read their men down with a viral flu. They moan and groan and make the wives/mothers/sisters/daughters/partners/lady friends dance attendance on them as if the world is coming to an end due to their suffering. For years, men have been the butt of women’s jokes about ‘man flu’, that just seems so much nastier but maybe there is some truth in this after all.
We took pride in our ability to withstand pain and suffering so much better and couldn’t stop boasting of not being the weaker sex, thanks to our stronger immune system. But a recent study shows that there is more to men being hit harder by viruses than can be explained by differences in the immune system of the sexes. Some viruses have evolved to be less severe when they infect women than men in order to help the virus survive. Women are definitely more valuable to viruses than men because they are more likely to help transmit the infection to others, particularly children. This primitive survival instinct means that viral infections tend to be more virulent in men than women. The poor afflicted women suffer milder infections and carry on working, basically acting as a vehicle for the virus to be transmitted. The poor lady doctor or nurse still attending to her patients, the teacher continuing to sneeze and cough while she goes on with her daily motions of speaking to the little pupils disseminating the bugs far and wide.
Professor Vincent from University of London, where the research was carried out, says, “It has already been established that men and women react to illness differently, but evidence shows that viruses themselves have evolved to affect the sexes differently.” Imagine the viruses favor us. His colleague adds: “Viruses may be evolving to be less dangerous to women, looking to preserve the female population. The reason why these illnesses are less severe in women is that the virus wants to be passed from mother to child, either through breastfeeding, or just through giving birth.
Researchers even used mathematical modelling to show how natural selection favors viruses that kill fewer women than men, we are their favorites after all!
They looked at a virus called HTLV-1 a distant cousin of HIV, which can cause leukemia and noted that women infected with HTLV-1 tend to develop leukemia less often than men when there is more chance that a mother can pass the viral infection on to children.
This mother-to-child transmission theory is demonstrated by a comparison between what happens after HTLV-1 infection in Japan compared with the Caribbean. The research showed that HTLV-1 is about 2 to 3.5 times more likely to lead to a fatal form of leukemia in Japanese men than women. However, in the Caribbean, the likelihood of infection leading to leukemia is roughly the same among men and women. The authors of the study suggest that the tradition of longer breastfeeding in Japan than in the Caribbean, prolonging the chances of infection between mother and child, may have caused the virus to evolve to be less fatal in Japanese women.
Long live Darwin, the survival of the fittest is relevant to all living beings even if they are the tiniest of viruses. It’s entirely probable that this sex-specific virulent behavior is happening to many other bugs causing diseases. It’s an excellent example of what evolutionary analysis can do for medicine. All these hard facts can help us understanding how infections spread.
So, what about the phenomenon of ‘man flu’? Surely it does not only exist in the realm of women’s imagination only….. So next time your man groans for attention for his backache when down with flu, put out that warm touch to heal & soothe.