Fighting for Equitable Reproductive Health Care: World Population Day—July 11, 2021

By Sarah Edmonds and Heather F. McClintock, PhD

World Population Day was established on July 11, 1987 by the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme to acknowledge that the world’s population had reached 5 billion people. In current times, the population increases by approximately 227,000 people a day. An aim of World Population Day has been to highlight issues related to population growth such as exacerbating food and water shortages, reducing our ability to combat climate change, a continuation of intergenerational poverty, and—as this year’s World Population Day theme stresses—a lack of access to reproductive health care. Though the global population continues to rise, specific areas across the globe are noticing sharply reduced fertility rates that has led to concerns about the economic strain of a reduced national and global population and has damaged the socio-cultural pride that often accompanies population growth. Concerns over either increased and decreased population growth (depending on geographic area) have, in the past, led governments to enact dangerous and unethical population-based policy interventions. These population-based interventions often infringe on the human right to life and bodily autonomy. During this past World Population Day, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) took the opportunity to urge restraint before nations enact such reactionary measures.

The right to bodily autonomy is one that has, historically, been provided only to select groups across the globe. Women, in particular, are still fighting for the ability to make decisions about their own health, livelihoods, and futures. The COVID-19 panedmic has caused dangerous setbacks regarding women-based public health programs such as initiatives to stop female genital mutilation and to improve reproductive education and health in high-risk communities. Even before this, reproductive rates across the globe have been fluctuating with 23 nations—including Spain and Japan—expected to halve their total population in less than 80 years.

As the pandemic continues, there should be a greater focus on increasing and directing resources towards programs and interventions that protect family planning services, reproductive health and education services, and women’s health and safety organizations. Differing attitudes towards women as well as towards individuals who fall outside of the male/female binary have caused setbacks in global gender-equality initiatives. That is why organizations such as the UNFP, the Commission on the State of Women, and the International Women’s Health Coalition are vital to ensuring that reconstruction after COVID-19 proceeds equitably so that people of all genders receive access to sustainable quality healthcare and health safety. We must protect, rebuild, and improve the quality of life and safety of women, persons who are gender noncomforming, and children across the globe far before acting on any reactionary concern about a declining population. 

A femme-presenting hand squeezes a globe stress ball while the individual donates blood.

Reflecting on Barriers to Blood Donation

By Sarah Edmonds and Heather F. McClintock

As we look back on the month of June, which has played host to World Blood Donor Day, Pride Month in the USA, and an unrelenting continuation of COVID-19 and its variants, the time has never been better to discuss the need for and barriers to high rates of blood donation worldwide.

In order to maintain safety procedures during this pandemic, blood drives and many blood donation services were cancelled; this, paired with increased hospitalization rates and the investigation of plasma treatments for COVID-19 led to one of the worst global blood shortages in recent history. In some countries, blood donation rates dropped by a massive 40%. Based on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommendations, men who had sex with other men (MSM) within the past year were ineligible to donate and were required to stay celibate for at least a year to regain eligibility. However, on April 3, 2020 due to the deteriorating blood supply, as well as pressure from the media and various advocacy organizations, the FDA shortened the blood donation deferral period for MSM from 1 year to 3 months. With the new 3 month deferral period many MSM sought to donate blood in the United States. However, despite the changed FDA recommendations, many MSM were turned away from donating blood based on their sexual practices even though they were legally within their bounds to do so in the United States. 

Other nations, such as Italy and Spain, determine risk and deferments based on self-reported questionnaires which, depending on results, may completely ban individuals from ever donating blood at all. In contrast, Argentina implemented in 2015 a “gender neutral” risk-based approach that did not enforce policies based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This policy demonstrated no significant difference in the prevalence of HIV in spite of a substantial increase in the number of donors. This finding provides substantive evidence that an inclusive blood donor policy does not result in an increased risk of HIV in the blood supply.

Reevaluating the processes and biases in the process of screening blood donors in the United States would potentially allow for countless willing and healthy donors—who would under current policies be turned away—to help fight the ongoing blood shortage. Many organizations such as the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors and the HIV Medicine Association have called for a complete rescission of the deferral period. Park et al. proposed an eligibility screening format that involves an individual risk-based screening protocol. This approach would not exclude donors based on gender identity or sexual orientation. This approach supports the equitable treatment of marginalized community members as blood donors while maintaining health and safety outcomes. 

As was the theme with the June 14th World Blood Donor Day, giving blood keeps the world beating. By making blood donation sites more abundant, more accessible, and more mobile we can be sure to see a marked increase in willing donors. Above all, we can and must make blood donation accessible and viable (with equitable access regardless of sexual orientation) for as many willing unpaid donors as possible in order to fight this blood shortage and to continue saving lives in the future.

Public health professionals condemn threats to health for Palestinians

By Cindy Sousa, International Health Section

The Palestine Health Justice Working Group, a committee of the American Public Health Association’s International Health (APHA-IH) Section, issued a statement last week focused on health justice for Palestinians. In it, they went beyond calling for a cease-fire to condemning ongoing settler-colonial violence and oppression by the Israeli government against Palestinians. The statement launched on Wednesday, May 19. Within 24 hours, they had 350 signatures from public health professionals across the globe (public health workers, social workers, physicians, nurses, medical students, and researchers, among others). By Saturday, May 22, this number had risen to 500 supporters.

To read the full text of their statement and to sign on: click here.

Pharmacy and Entrance to UNRWA Nuseirat Health Clinic, Gaza Strip, 2015. Photo by Ron J Smith.

Over the past month, Palestinians have seen spiraling violence at the hands of Israeli military forces, police, and private mobs. But the attacks of last week – following Palestinian resistance to the eviction of Palestinians in the neighborhood of Shiekh Jarrah by Israelis – were the worst in years. Between May 10 and May 21, the Israeli military killed at least 230 Palestinians in Gaza, including 66 children; injured almost 2,000; and temporarily displaced more than 77,000. In the West Bank, Israeli forces killed 27 Palestinians and injured 6,794 more. Israel destroyed or damaged six hospitals and nine healthcare centers in Gaza, including a clinic that housed its only coronavirus testing lab, and killed two of the most prominent physicians in Gaza: Dr Ayman Abu Auf, head of the internal medicine department and Coronavirus response at Gaza’s largest hospital al-Shifa and Dr. Mo’in Ahmad al-Aloul, one of the few neurologists in Gaza.

The violence has taken an extreme toll on Palestinians, a community already suffering from hostility, such that on April 27 of this year, Human Rights Watch released a report condemning Israeli authorities for “crimes of apartheid and persecution.” Israel has undermined Palestine’s public health system for decades, through blockades and direct attacks. These efforts have undermined efforts at containing COVID 19.   Vaccine access disparity reached such a critical point that many described it as institutionalized discrimination and as medical apartheid. These practices are especially damaging when viewed within the framework of ongoing occupation and deliberate gutting of the Palestinian health-sector under Israeli settler-colonial rule. On this point, Osama Tanous, a pediatrician and volunteer with the mobile clinic of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel in Gaza, described the larger context of the most recent attacks on Gaza, pointing out, “Healthcare infrastructure in Gaza was already heavily damaged by decades of Israeli de-development and siege. Now it has suffered additional, direct attacks on facilities and workforce.”

While the group was heartened last week by the news of cease-fire, their statement called for more, including independent investigations into the short- and long-term physical and mental health implications of the actions of the Israeli government. They are especially concerned about ongoing attacks on civilians, healthcare, and healthcare workers, which are in clear violation of international law and the ethics of public health. Palestine Health Justice Working Group also emphasizes that their statement – like their ongoing work – is not just about the most recent events, but about decades of violence and oppression against Palestinians. Group co-chair and global health scholar Yara Asi, asserted, “While our statement addressed the immediate need for a lasting ceasefire, this statement goes further, to situate the violence in its historical context. The public health community is very much seeing the need to act on our professional ethics to promote ongoing justice in Palestine and Israel – not just for this week, but for the long-term.”

Regarding the need to situate the violence of last week within a larger context, last week human rights experts from the United Nations called for an International Criminal Court investigation into not only the most recent Israeli attacks against civilians and healthcare facilities, but also wide-spread evictions and illegal transfer of Palestinians by Israelis, along with the ongoing constraints on Palestinian housing, education, and freedom of movement.

In support of the statement, Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician trained in emergency medicine who has been working with Palestinian doctors for four decades, said, “I’m a medical doctor. I’m trained to treat root causes of suffering, not just symptoms. The Israeli occupation, colonization of Palestine, and brutal apartheid that underlies the health crisis in Palestine must end.”

The majority of signatories are from the United States, with others signing from the UK, Egypt, Canada, Spain, Israel, and Palestine. Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei, a psychiatrist in Palestine and head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said, “This statement sends a positive message to all supporters of the Palestinian struggle. We see justice getting closer and closer. No matter how difficult life is for us now, our dignity and our rights to health and to freedom are increasingly recognized, in this case, as the statement demonstrates, by a growing public health community concerned with justice for Palestine.”

The statement by the APHA-IH working group joins with at least four other statements issued by health professionals aimed at addressing not only immediate fatalities, but also the health harms of the ongoing Israeli settler-colonial project in Palestine. Statements were also issued by People’s Health Movement; Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Health Advisory Council; Equal Health’s Campaign Against Racism; and a group of Canadian Health Workers. Other professional groups have issued calls, including a wide-ranging group of scholars; The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA); Middle East Studies Association; the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association; and others.

Rachel Rubin, another co-chair of the Palestine Health Justice Working Group, who is also on the steering committee for the JVP Health Advisory Council, notes, “What we have seen this May is an increasingly urgent insistence that justice in Palestine is a compelling health issue, one that requires us to act on our ethical imperatives to promote freedom and oppose all forms of violence including settler-colonial control of Palestine.”

It was exactly this sentiment that led to the formation of APHA’s International Health Section Palestine Health Justice Working Group several years ago. The working group began as a network formed within the International Health Section to pass an APHA policy statement on the health harms of Israeli settler-colonial violence and oppression in Palestine. Serving as a forum for interaction, support, information exchange, and activism, the group works to raise consciousness about the issue among APHA members and other health professionals – through education at the APHA annual meeting and other venues, and through promoting the work and leadership of Palestinian health professionals.

As an organized body within APHA focused on health justice in Palestine, The Palestine Health Justice Working Group works not only externally, but also within APHA to pressure the organization to use our collective voice, as one of the leading global public health organizations, to voice opposition to Israel’s continual assaults on Palestinian health and freedom, as APHA has in contexts of Iran (#277718), Iraq (#200617), South Africa (#9122), Nicaragua (#8306), Yemen (LB19-13), and other locations.

The group’s statement aligns with several APHA resolutions, which have held that the prevention of genocide (#200030), the health effects of militarism (#8531), the health of refugees (#8531), law enforcement violence (#201811), attacks on healthcare workers (#201910), and health within armed conflict and war (#20095) are public health matters deserving of our attention and action. The statement also pushes APHA itself, as the Governing Council has–in four separate attempts (2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013)–failed to pass proposed resolutions expressing concern about how the Israeli occupation has undermined the health of Palestinians.

Site of the Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital, Gaza Strip. Destroyed in Israeli bombing raid July 23rd, 2014. Photo by Ron J Smith.

“People’s views are changing,” says Amy Hagopian, long-time section member and 2018 recipient of the section’s Victor Sidel and Barry Levy Award for Peace, who co-authored these resolutions, “APHA members are beginning to see through the rhetorical devices used to shut down debate on Palestine. This topic scares people because they think it’s too complicated, or they don’t want to be accused of being anti-Semitic, or the don’t see the connection to public health.  Maybe the meaningful conversation about Black Lives and police violence in the U.S. over the last year has helped people connect some dots. The widespread support for this statement – and others like it – demonstrate that APHA could have this conversation in a respectful way, and step up to advocate for health justice for Palestinians.”  

To get involved, people can join our Palestine Health Justice Working Group meetings at APHA’s annual meeting each year, or send a message to apha-palestine-health-justice-working-group@googlegroups.com. Please be sure to attend their invited session at APHA’s 2021 Annual Meeting: Sovereignty as a core determinant of health: The imperative for both social connection and independence, as well as other sessions that will be held on Palestinian health justice.

“What’s happening is a scandal”: Health is Still a Target in Syria

Credit: Image by dj2216 under Creative Commons license via Pixabay

Dr. Naser AlMhawish speaks with admiration for his fellow health care workers in Syria. A surgeon turned surveillance coordinator for the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), he describes how a colleague smuggled himself into a village stuck between conflict groups and gathered potential polio samples. Before returning the samples to Turkey, the colleague was arrested and questioned.

“They couldn’t understand that someone would risk his life [to carry samples],” said AlMhawish, noting the samples were eventually used to identify an outbreak. Other members of the team have been attacked and even killed while working to end polio. In some areas, AlMhawish said the association with an organization like ACU made otherwise routine health work “like a suicide mission”.

Prior to joining ACU, AlMhawish practiced surgery in his home town of Raqqah, Syria, where he survived bombings and faced ethical dilemmas. “You are dealing with patients regardless of their background,” he said, remembering the messages he posted at a hospital announcing “No Guns Allowed”. He had to leave Syria when it became impossible to avoid coercion to work for conflict actors.

Dr. Fadi Hakim, advocacy manager at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), worked in similar circumstances. Before his displacement from Syria, Hakim practiced in Eastern Aleppo where he was the only dentist for miles. “I was myself subjected to attacks on facilities while I was inside,” he said. “It is really terrifying when you hear the jet…when you start to hear the barrel bomb falling down over your head, and you don’t know whether it’s going to fall down on you or next to you”.

He cited the experiences of friends and coworkers surviving multiple attacks and the impact to their mental health and family life. “Imagine the family’s reaction every time they hear about a hit,” he said, “the children always saying bye to dad, not sure if he is coming back or not.”

Both Hakim and AlMhawish work with Dr. Rohini Haar, an APHA International Health (IH) section member, to demonstrate the impact of attacks on population health. An emergency physician in Berkeley, California, Haar began researching attacks on health with human rights lawyer and IH section member Leonard Rubenstein in Myanmar.

Rubenstein is a past president and executive director of Physicians for Human Rights and current chair of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition (SHCC) which raises awareness about, strengthens documentation of, and empowers local groups to demand accountability regarding attacks on health.

These efforts mingle with the work of IH governing councilor Dr. Samer Jabbour, a cardiologist and professor at the American University of Beirut. Jabbour chairs the Lancet-AUB Commission on Syria which introduced the concept of weaponisation of health.

Several additional collaborations and surveillance initiatives emerged during the past decade, including the WHO’s Surveillance System of Attacks on Healthcare (SSA) and the ICRC’s Health in Danger (HCiD) project. In 2016, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2286 was adopted to extend provisions of international law for healthcare personnel and facilities in conflict situations. In 2019, an APHA policy statement outlined a research agenda and called for protection of health workers and health facilities in war.

Despite other encouraging developments, such as the launch of criminal trials and a recent conviction on crimes against humanity in Syria, attacks on health continue with impunity. “What’s happening is a scandal,” said Hakim, “This is a terror tactic. We are just being hit and nobody seems to care except for sending a statement, condemning, etc.”

While documentation and reporting remain an important part of the accountability and justice process, researchers like Jabbour and Haar express the need to demonstrate impacts on population health. Jabbour said the research should also measure “the efficacy of interventions” like the 2286 Resolution which turned five years old in March.

Various efforts are already underway. In addition to forthcoming research from the AUB-Lancet Commission, Hakim and AlMhawish are working with Haar at the University of California, Berkeley. The Researching the Impact of Healthcare (RIAH) consortium includes Rubenstein and Haar as co-investigator and researcher, respectively. SHCC also recently released a report, “Ineffective Past, Uncertain Future”, that concluded an “absence of follow-through on these commitments” and called for appointment of a special representative or monitor on the UN Resolution’s implementation.

SAMS will continue to focus on violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), said Hakim, including attacks on health care workers and facilities. “Recently we are getting more focused on accountability issues and… building of cases with the hope to be able to someday go to courts and be able to have accountability,” he said.

Other challenges also remain. In addition to the constant threat of violence, for example, AlMhawish wonders about the next funding cycle. “In the field we have more than 200 working,” he said. “So 200 families, and with the economic situation, yes—funding is critical for us.”

With COVID-19 exacting even more stress on the tenuous health workforce, humanitarian access, and funding sources, the situation looks bleak. “We said to ourselves we will not stay silent about what is happening,” said Hakim. “Sometimes people say everybody is tired from hearing about Syria. Ok, let it be so. We want everyone to be tired about what’s happening in Syria. We don’t want to stay silent about what is happening. Because unfortunately right now, this is the only thing that we have.”

As population health impacts of attacks on conflict are more effectively measured and additional voices appeal for justice from governments and policy makers, will perpetrators finally be brought to heel?

Trade, Health, and Access to the COVID Vaccines

By: Mary Anne Mercer, IH Section representative in the Trade and Health Forum

The International Health Section is part of the Trade and Health Forum, an intersectional group that aims to inform and activate members on how various aspects of trade affects health, both at home and in the rest of the world. That topic is a bit of a mystery to most of us. But as globalization becomes ever more evident, the relevance of its effects on health is more obvious.

Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.  If there is one key lesson to be learned from this past year, it’s that we will only be able to crush the pandemic here when it can be done everywhere. And an important strategy to making that happen is to step up access to the new vaccines as quickly and as widely as possible.  “Herd immunity” can only be reached safely by massive levels of immunizations.

 Right now the 84% of the world’s population that lives in low and middle-income countries is at a huge disadvantage because of rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) constraining the development of generic drugs and vaccines. Those of us who were involved in the early response to AIDS in Africa see eerie parallels with that time. The first drugs to treat AIDS were too costly for low-income countries to adopt. I worked with a health program in Mozambique in the late 1990’s, and it was only after an Indian pharmaceutical company, CIPLA, began producing generic versions of the triple-drug therapy in 2001 that we were able to support drug treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS.  As a result of that delay of more than a dozen years—during which HIV spread unchecked in countries unable to afford drug treatment—some 15 million Africans died of AIDS. 

Right now global access to the vaccine is an important issue that is central to concerns of the Trade and Health group. The WTO patent regulations in question are documented as Trade-Related Intellectual Property right section (TRIPS). The WTO can temporarily waive the patents on COVID vaccines to allow generics to be developed—which would allow a massive scale-up of the immunization effort. The proposal to issue an emergency TRIPS waiver for the period of the pandemic has wide support in low and middle income countries but, so far, is opposed by the currently US administration as well as several other of the rich countries. 

The essence of the patent waiver controversy is, of course, the bottom line. Pharmaceutical profits tend to be substantial; it’s estimated that the profit margin for the Pfizer vaccine, for example, will be four billion dollars by the time the pandemic ends.  The US could be a leader in supporting the proposed TRIPS waiver, but so far has not indicated it’s willing to take that stand.

For more information about this issue, please check out my recent Medium article or any number of concerned groups such as Global Trade Watch and HealthGap.  And take action!