Antibiotic Resistance: Hidden Rates in Rural Areas of the Developing World

When the age of antibiotics commenced in the 1950s, diseases and infections that typically would lead to humans being stigmatized by society, a permanent stay at a sanatorium, and then ultimately death were suddenly able to be treated quickly and efficiently. Penicillin and Streptomycin, not only improved a patient’s quality of life and longevity, but reshaped the very nature of treating infectious diseases. Health care professionals now possessed a cure to end the spread of the ailment and to eliminate the actual microorganism that created the suffering. However, these agents brought with them negative consequences that the global health community is still combating today – antibiotic resistance being one of the most significant issues. Antibiotic resistance is the predator’s (bacteria, virus, other microorganism) ability to resist an antibiotic that once was able to eliminate it. Although antibiotic resistance can occur naturally due to the cleverness of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa, the misuse of antibiotics in humans has tremendously accelerated the rate and severity of resistance. This inappropriate use of medicine and skills has led to difficult to treat infections like Extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) producing strains of Enterobacteriaceae and even untreatable infections with no known drug on the market able to help an infected patient. The concept of antibiotic resistance often differs within the medical community when comparing the developed world, particularly urban areas, and the developing world, particularly rural areas. The amount of research, minds, and technology mobilized to address this unruly behavior by microorganisms varies drastically between the two sets.

In the urban developed world where physicians are equipped with the most innovative antibiotics known to man like daptomycin or the “Crispr” agents, antibiotic resistance is frequently a topic of discussion along with funding, human resources, and technology available to address it. Also, common ideology is that antibiotic resistance arises from the direct misuse of antibiotics rather than of natural causes. Contrasting the rural developing world, the aforementioned necessities to deter antibiotic resistance are often lacking due to health inequalities that unfortunately are ubiquitous throughout this fragile planet. More interesting though, health care professionals have formed an impression that antibiotic resistance more commonly stems from the dissemination of resistant organisms. With this mindset ingrained in world health leaders, the agenda has been to focus on prevention through this venue in the rural developing world – often lacking a call of funding to determine actual causes of antibiotic resistance and their associated rates in the rural developing world. While the dissemination of strains of Escherichia coli through feces and Multi-drug resistance Tuberculosis through poor air quality certainly needs to be addressed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in 1999 encouraging health care professions to consider a range of socioeconomic and behavioral factors including misuse of antibiotics by physicians, unskilled practitioners, the public, counterfeit medications, inadequate surveillance, and political factors. To follow up with this theoretical account, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a survey across twelve (12) low to middle income countries across the world in 2015 to interview the population about their beliefs towards antibiotics and resistance. Some of the results are presented below:

  • In lower income countries, it was reported that antibiotic use is higher (42%) than in higher income countries (29%).
  • Across the countries, the range of patients obtaining their antibiotics with a physician’s prescription ranges from 56% to 93%.
  • The percentage of individuals believing they can use the same antibiotic as a family member did to treat a similar illness is 25% while 43% believe it is acceptable to buy the same antibiotic from a local pharmacy.
  • When patient’s start to feel better, 32% of the those interviewed believe they can stop the antibiotics and not follow through with full course.
  • When treating colds and viruses, 62% of respondents believe antibiotics could be used to treat these ailments.
  • Finally, 44% of those interviewed believe antibiotic resistance is only a problem for those regularly taking antibiotics.

These specific social results from patients in the developing world directly conflict with the thought of the major distributor of antibiotic resistance being through dissemination of the disease. The beliefs presented through these percentages seem to lead to a whole host of factors being involved similar to the developed world. In addition to these social results, PLOS Biology released data in 2018 that Escherichia coli was resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics like ampicillin (92%), ceftazidime (90%), cefoxitin (88%), streptomycin (40%) and tetracycline (36%) in the rural areas of Sikkim, India in pre-school and school-going children. The Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society reported similar rates among children in 2015 with Klebsiella pneumoniae having a median resistance to ampicillin with a rate of 94% in Asia and 100% in Africa, and cephalosporins having a rate of 84% in Asia and 50% in Africa. Also, The World Health Organization informed the global community that in Malawi in 2018, nearly 100% of Neisseria gonorrheae genital isolates were non-susceptible to ceftriaxone and roughly 15% were non-susceptible to azithromycin. When analyzing both the social and technical results from above, a renewed emphasis and novel perspective needs to be created in order to properly address antibiotic resistance in the rural developing world.

At the beginning of this year (January 2018), the World Health Organization released its initial reports utilizing an innovative reporting system for antibiotic resistance christened Global Antimicrobial Surveillance System (GLASS). This system was developed in order to preserve human and animal health throughout the globe in relation to antibiotics and their resistance. Although GLASS was officially launched in 2015, it is still in its early implementation period with only 22 countries reporting on actual resistance within their nation states and 40 countries reporting on their national surveillance program. However, GLASS aims at a variety of measures that will ensure antibiotic resistance is more appropriately addressed in the rural developing world by providing a standardized approach to collection, analysis, and dissemination of information to participating countries. GLASS will strengthen nation states antibiotic resistance surveillance systems and modify the data being studied from solely laboratory data to epidemiological, clinical, and population-level data. The preliminary results that were released by WHO revealed that across the 22 reporting countries, there were 500,000 individuals suffering from an infectious disease with antibiotic resistance. Although this data varies with completeness and accuracy across countries, the outcomes highlight the global emergency antibiotic resistance posses from the urban developed world to the rural developing world and everywhere in between – these mutated organisms will fail to respect national borders.

The global health bodies throughout the world have initiated programs and offered advice to nations that will serve the battle against antibiotic resistance well. However, the concealed rates of resistance in the rural developing world will need to be undertaken medically and socially in order to properly end this global emergency. Pipeline innovative antibiotics like relebactam, a novel beta-lactamase inhibitor and an educational emphasis on behavior habits will aid these parts of the world – but the health community will fall short unless the world changes its perception of antibiotic resistance in the countryside of Cambodia, the rice terraces of Vietnam, the jungles of Belize, and areas with similar socioeconomic status.

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The G20 Makes Early Childhood Development a Priority

World wide roughly 200 million children under the age of five, in low and middle income countries, will fail to meet basic developmental milestones. Such deficits affect health across the lifespan, the ability to contribute to the national economy, and the ability to stop the cycle of poverty. With this knowledge in mind the United Nations made a point of linking their sustainable development goals to children’s issues, specifically early childhood development (ECD). Recently the G20, with Argentina as the new chair, have placed an emphasis on ECD in the international community by adding it to their own sustainability goals. The G20 has recognized that ECD must be incorporated into all programs, not just within child centric programs and that an emphasis must be placed on children under five years of age.

Programmatic areas have remained siloed focusing on nutrition and ensuring school aged children receive an education. While these initiatives play a role in ECD they only focus on topical areas and do not formally integrate ECD, newborn to age five, into programmatic work. The G20 has created a case for cross collaboration within programmatic and policy level work, even laying out funding streams for such work. This puts the G20 in line with World Health Organization guidelines, including guidelines around integration of ECD in emergency situations. When you are already servicing families and their children, especially in low income programmatic settings, it is easy to add in basic ECD education. For example, when providing breastfeeding support to mothers this is a wonderful opportunity to briefly discuss the need to talk and sing to the child in order to develop language acquisition. Another example is to provide pamphlets, that match the health literacy level of the community, around positive parenting and age appropriate milestones at an immunization drive.  

ECD doesn’t just apply to children – it applies directly to the child’s environment: families, caregivers, and national leadership. ECD focuses a lot on positive parenting to encourage positive brain development and language acquisition. The World Health Organization just released a guideline that discusses nurturing care within ECD, highlighting strategies and policies focusing on the environment that impacts ECD. A really interesting piece that the G20 highlights is the need for better trained child care providers. The G20 ties it back to economics – if a family, mothers in particular, feels comfortable leaving their child in the care of someone else they are able to contribute to their local and national economy in a greater way. There is also the money saving aspect for countries who invest in programs that promote ECD in children under the age of five. As discussed in the literature, children’s brains are rapidly developing arguably from in the womb through the first 1,000 days of life, and programs that focus on this age group provide a larger cost saving than programs that focus on children over five. This is because potential developmental delays are prevented, thus not as much money is needed to get a child back on their developmental track. Also, at such a young age with the focus predominantly being on environmental factors the cost is solely around training and educating front line staff, not actual school aged interventions.

Again – it is great news to have a group like G20 make ECD a priority, especially for children under five. It brings the topic back to the front of the global health stage and proves that it can be easily incorporated into programmatic work.

Empowering Women to Take Control of their Sexual Health

Two weeks ago, I attended a powerful and motivating summit hosted by Florida International University (FIU) Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work on empowering women to take control of their sexual health through knowledge of biomedical HIV prevention methods, connecting to community resources, and mobilizing key community stakeholders and providers.

What was most unique about this summit was the rawness of the various conversations. These conversations included voices of state congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, community women and activists, a panel of diverse physicians and nurse practitioners, researchers, and LGBT and minority women working across different sectors in the HIV prevention field. When it comes to empowering women surrounding their sexual health, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is viewed as the driving vehicle. The problem is that there is a lack of awareness among women particularly LGBT and minority women, and providers about PrEP and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). During the engaging providers panel comprised of various physicians working in South Florida, a Haitian physician expressed that before the conference he decided to call several of his provider friends that practice within the local Haitian community and asked them if they have heard of PrEP. How many do you think said, “Of course, I know about PrEP”? The answer is…0. Not one single doctor whom was asked said they have heard of PrEP. We have a lot left to do. The work has not yet been done!

Miami’s HIV Epidemic

So maybe you are wondering…well why host this conference? The county of Miami-Dade continues to lead the nation in new HIV infections. Not too far away is the neighboring county of Broward which continues to compete with Miami when it comes to high prevalence rates as well.

Due to the rising rates of HIV in Miami-Dade County, city officials have responded to the epidemic with the development of a “Getting to Zero” task force comprised of city commissioners and individuals representing various public health agencies throughout Miami-Dade County as well as the state of Florida. The task force devised a multi-pronged action plan with priority goals for the next two years. The plans include to (1) reduce the rates of reported AIDS cases, (2) reduce the percentage of newly diagnosed HIV cases among residents aged 13-19 (3) increase the percentage of newly identified HIV-infected persons who are linked to care within 90 days of diagnosis and are receiving appropriate preventive care and treatment services in Miami-Dade County and (4) reduce the number of newly reported HIV cases in Miami-Dade County (http://www.miamidade.gov/releases/2016-09-29-mayor-getting-to-zero.asp).

Prep around the globe

PrEP has served as a vehicle for prevention and is being used worldwide. Countries such as the United States has large scale PrEP programs while others are still in the stages of development and some have not implemented as of yet. There has been many PrEP initiatives enacted. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is currently supporting 5 Microbicide Product Introduction Initiative (MPii) projects in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Uganda from 2015-2020 focused on gender-based violence, drug resistance, creating demand, introducing new products, and models for delivering services. Another program is the DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) initiative, a collaborative effort between US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Girl Effect, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences and ViiV Healthcare. DREAMS aims to reduce the incidence of HIV by 40% among adolescent girls and young women by 2020 in the highest HIV burden countries including Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Of the 10 countries, 5 have included PrEP for adolescent girls and young women in their strategic plans to address HIV. Recent data from PEPFAR shows significant declines in new HIV diagnoses among adolescent girls and young women. In the 10 African countries implementing PEPFAR’s DREAMS partnership, the majority of the highest HIV-burden communities or districts achieved greater than a 25 percent–40 percent decline in new HIV diagnoses among young women (https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/global-health/hiv-and-aids/technical-areas/dreams). In other areas of the globe such as Latin America and the Caribbean, a combination of biomedical, structural, and behavioral interventions is greatly needed in order to reach target objectives and goals and ultimately increase HIV prevention efforts. I am excited to see the future of PrEP.

Women’s Perspectives

During the women’s perspectives breakout sessions, workshops were broken down into specific focus groups including African American, Latina and Haitian. Amongst the African American women breakout session, some key topics that were addressed included stigma, specifically communication between the medical provider and client such as clear language on how to ask questions during the appointment while also considering time constraints, policy, and the need for funding toward effective behavioral interventions for HIV negative black women in the community.

Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS) is a grassroots mobilization of black women in the fight against HIV and AIDS. In Florida, one in 68 non-Hispanic black women are known to be living with HIV/AIDS and has been the leading cause of death among black women aged 25-44 years within the state. (http://www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/aids/administration/minority-initiatives.html)

Call to Action

Miami is the #1 city in the United States with new HIV infections. This is a huge public health issue. We have a call to action to advocate for ourselves and others when it comes to ending the epidemic. We have made significant strides, but the work has not yet been done. Sexual health including HIV prevention should be something that we freely discuss with our family, colleagues, peers, physicians, and anyone that we come in contact with that is willing to listen. It is these conversations that we can decrease stigma surrounding HIV. Women across the counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach have answered the call to action by organizing and advocating for all women. We have accepted the call to action together that we can get Miami to Zero!

“A future where new HIV infections are rare, and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socio-economic circumstance will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

–Quote from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Updated to 2020: Strategy Vision

For additional information, please visit http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/prep/en/ http://amp4health.org/ and http://getting2zeromiami.com/

Achieving health equity in global health through workforce diversity

This International Women’s Day we honor the achievements of women leaders working to advance the health and well-being of people all over the world. Their path to success was certainly not easy. It was fraught with numerous challenges; challenges that are not only experienced by those of us working in global health but by women across all industries.

We are considered either too soft and feminine or too bossy and pushy to be seen as competent leaders. Our work culture lacks family-oriented, work-life balance policies which enable us to contribute to our field in significant ways. We lack female mentors to encourage us to grow and push us to overcome any obstacles we encounter in our career. We work for organizations where the people who make the big decisions on what policies and programmatic areas to focus on are men. The struggles we face trying to advance in our careers are reflected in the lack of gender equality in the global health workforce. While women make up 70% of the global health workforce, only 25% of leadership positions in global health are held by women.

We have known for a long time that when women are given equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in economic, political, and public life, everyone in society does better. Female leaders in health “promote access to contraceptives, empowerment programs for girls, women’s rights to family planning and maternity care, safe abortions, and protecting environmental assaults on children’s health.” In addition, women leaders at all levels of governance have shown to be the primary driver toward financing public goods such as health, education, hospitals, clean water, and sanitation. Women’s participation and leadership in economic, political, and public life is so critical to advancing societies that it is even written into one of the sustainable development goals. When women have a voice at all levels of decision-making, we are closer to eliminating the inequities that lead to disparities in health.

More global health organizations are recognizing the need for women leaders and organizations such as Women in Global Health are working toward achieving gender equality in global health leadership. Last year the World Health Organization’s newest Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom, appointed eight women to senior leadership, effectively outnumbering the men. In doing so, he took one big leap toward achieving gender equity at the WHO – a goal that was first set in 1997 and that took two decades to realize.

Gender equality is not the only type of diversity we need to strive toward in our global health leadership however. Diversity in global health leadership must also focus on inclusion of people from different ages, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, geography, religion, and other characteristics of personal identity.  As a woman and a first-generation Filipino-American working in global health in the United States, I often find myself at global health and public health conferences and meetings wondering why there are very few leaders that encompass the diversity that I represent on stage (and occasionally even in the audience). The people who make the decisions with the biggest impact in global health must reflect the diversity of the people we serve.  

Learning from, understanding, and seeing the world through another person’s point of view is at the heart of working in global health and a driving reason for why I chose to work in this field. In order to truly reflect the diversity of this field though, the definition of diversity itself needs to go far and beyond the characteristics of one’s personal identity. To fully be inclusive, we must also be open to learning from, understanding, and seeing the world through the perspectives of individuals in the global health workforce with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, and competencies. Our field could benefit from the ideas of diverse individuals in solving some of the world’s most pressing global health problems. These ideas cannot always come out of our own echo chambers. 

Achieving diversity in the global health workforce is everyone’s job. It requires each one of us to recognize and overcome the personal biases (whether they are subconscious or not) which prevent us from hiring and working with more diverse talent. For those of us responsible for making decisions, we must work to create policies at all levels which not only promote but require inclusion. It’s only then that we can achieve true diversity in our workforce and our leadership. It’s only then that we can progress further in achieving health equity.

Stay tuned for part two of my series on Achieving health equity in global health through workforce diversity in which I will discuss different ideas for how we can achieve diversity in the global health workforce.