Sex Differences are Real and They Matter: Viruses Affect Men and Women Differently

Men and women evolved differently. You already knew that.

But here we have a surprise explanation for why women sometimes seem to weather illnesses better than men.

Excerpt from New Scientist

Is man-flu a quirk of viral evolution? Some viruses might cause weaker symptoms in women than in men because it makes them more likely to spread.

Many infections cause more severe illness in men than women. Men infected with tuberculosis are 1.5 times more likely to die than women; men infected with human papillomavirus are five times more likely to develop cancer than women; and men infected with Epstein-Barr virus are at least twice as likely to develop Hodgkin’s lymphoma as women.

Many think this pattern is because of differences between the sexes’ immune systems. But another explanation is that women are more valuable hosts. Women can pass infections to their children during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, so there’s an evolutionary pressure on viruses to be less harmful to them, say Francisco Úbeda and Vincent Jansen at Royal Holloway University of London.

Mother to child
In order for a virus to infect others, it needs to produce more copies of itself in the body. Making their host ill is an unavoidable consequence of this. “That’s not something a pathogen particularly sets out to do because it’s shooting itself in the foot, should it have one,” says Jansen.

The researchers used mathematical modelling to show that, for pathogens that affect both sexes, natural selection in theory should favour those that cause less illness in women – as long as they can be transmitted from mother to child.

This evolutionary pressure, they argue, could explain a longstanding puzzle: why human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) progresses to leukaemia much more commonly in Japanese men than Japanese women, but affects both sexes equally in the Caribbean. They argue that this discrepancy is because women breastfeed their babies more commonly and for longer in Japan – giving the virus more opportunity to enter another host.

For this to be the case, though, the virus would have to be able to detect whether it’s inside a man or a woman. We don’t yet know how it would do this, but it’s not impossible, says Jansen. “There are all sorts of hormonal and other pathways that are slightly different between men and women,” he says.

If we were to identify a mechanism, that would open the possibility of manipulating it. “We could try to make the virus think it’s in a female body rather than a male body and therefore take a different course of action,” says Jansen.

Sex differences
The study emphasises the need to conduct clinical trials in both sexes, rather than predominantly in men as is often the case, says David Duneau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toulouse, France. “The parasites themselves are behaving differently in males and females, so we need to know what they do in both sexes,” he says.

6 thoughts on “Sex Differences are Real and They Matter: Viruses Affect Men and Women Differently

  1. “the virus would have to be able to detect whether it’s inside a man or a woman”. This would be easy. The female would often be late for meetings, have wild temperature and hormone changes, strange mood episodes, temper tantrums and just general nuttiness. The female would like to listen to some pretty weird and sicko songs. Any virus would wish it was somewhere else, anywhere else, maybe the kiddie would be a better amd calmer host.

    Two viruses meet one day, somewhere nice for them but nasty to a humans taste…..maybe a gutter or sewerage farm or hospital waste rubbish bin. “You lucky bastard you had a man for a host. I had been living inside a woman and it was murder”.

  2. There’s a better explanation than this: natural selection.

    Nature needs more females than males, so she has made men weaker to its effects and more likely to succumb to death. The law of nature (of animals AND of man) is to spare as many women as possible, but to kill all men except for the strongest. Then those lucky 10%, 25% or 50% impregnate the ladies to promote healthy racial eugenics (pure, strong and moral) so we breed upward towards the stars as evolution dictates, until we become so advanced that we are worthy of the gods themselves.

  3. I was taught at school that Science is:

    Aim – Method – Result. (In that order)

    Stories like this look like:

    Result – Shoehorn Some Facts – Wild Theory posing as Science. (In that order)

  4. While it’s much too complex to go into here, simply, it’s estrogen, the reason women have better immune responses than men, but they get more autoimmune responses than men such as Systemic lupus erythematosus, Rheumatoid arthritis, and Multiple sclerosis.

    Testosterone is immune suppressive. Men have varying levels even in youth. Since estrogen and testosterone decrease with age, both women and men are susceptible to lowered immunity.

    Genetics, lifestyles (eating well, one example), and environment all affect immune responses as well. Men are less likely than women to seek medical attention and comply with medical therapies; which can lead to complications influencing immune responses.

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