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/

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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.

Event Invitation: Taking the Pulse of the Expanded Mexico City Policy, 10/19

Posted on behalf of Laura Altobelli, IH Section Chair

Here is an opportunity to hear early research findings on application of Trump’s expanded Global Gag Rule on reproductive health as well as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in 7 countries.

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The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) in cooperation with Senator Blumenthal and Senator Shaheen

We invite you to a briefing:

Taking the Pulse of the Expanded Mexico City Policy

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2017

2:30 PM – 4:00 PM

CAPITOL VISITORS CENTER, SVC209

First St NE, Washington, D.C. 20515

Refreshments served. Space is limited. RSVP to Annerieke Smaak (asmaak@genderhealth.org).

The Trump Administration’s “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy, also known as the global gag rule, is currently due for a six-month review. This expansion and re-branding of the “Mexico City Policy” encompasses all global health assistance, including funds to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Expert speakers will share new research findings on the early impacts of this policy in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. They will also shed light on how previous versions of the policy relate to abortion rates, maternal mortality, and other areas of global health.

Speakers:

Bergen Cooper, Director of Policy Research, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

Vanessa Rios, Program Officer, International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC)

Skye Wheeler, Emergencies Researcher, Women’s Rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Moderator – Nina Besser Doorley, Senior Program Officer, IWHC

International Group B Strep Awareness Month: What Should I Know About GBS Disease?

July is International Group B Strep Month. This blog post gives an overview of the illness and its impact on pregnant women around the globe.

Group B Streptococcus bacteria (GBS), also known as Streptococcus agalactiae, typically colonize the gastrointestinal and genitourinary tracts, the throat, and the skin. GBS disease is caused when bacteria enter a normally sterile site such as the blood, bone, or spinal fluid. Both children and adults can develop GBS disease. The disease usually develops in infants that are 0-90 days old and adults that are 60 years of age and older with underlying chronic illnesses. There is currently no vaccine for GBS disease.

Although GBS may come from unknown sources, one out of four pregnant women are carrying the bacteria in their vagina or rectum and can vertically transmit an infection to their newborns. Infections occur during labor (“early-onset disease” or EOD) or within the first week of life through three months of age (“late-onset disease” or LOD). Symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from other infections and range from fever, difficulty breathing, lethargy, and “blue” skin. Severe symptoms that can develop in newborns and infants include sepsis and pneumonia. Meningitis is more likely to occur in infants or newborns with LOD. Complications from GBS disease may result in preterm delivery and lead to developmental disabilities or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), risk factors for pregnant women include:

  • Testing positive for group B strep bacteria late in the current pregnancy (35-37 weeks pregnant)
  • Detecting group B strep bacteria in urine (pee) during the current pregnancy
  • Delivering early (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) 
  • Developing a fever during labor
  • Having a long time between water breaking and delivering (18 hours or more)
  • Having a previous baby who developed early-onset disease

Since 1970, GBS disease has been a topic of concern in health care, research, and public health circles. In 1989, the death of three newborns from GBS disease led to the development of public awareness campaigns that called for improved education, detection, and preventive resources in the U.S. Furthermore, around this time, data collected by the CDC revealed that GBS disease was the leading cause of death in newborns. Parents and advocacy groups actively demanded guidance that would allow for routine screening and the development of an effective vaccine for pregnant moms, globally. Below is a timeline of how advocacy efforts led to research, policy change, and the implementation of effective interventions:

Brief Timeline of GBS Disease Awareness, Education, and Prevention Efforts

  • 1990 Group B Strep Association US/International is created. Its primary goals are to:
    • Educate the public about GBS infections.
    • Promote prevention of neonatal GBS infections through routine prenatal screening.
    • Promote the development of a GBS vaccine.
  • 1991 GBS researchers awarded a 5-year grant to begin research on a vaccine for  GBD disease
  • 1992 American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and American Academy of Pediatrics publish position papers for members
  • 1996 CDC Call for Content on GBS Prevention Protocol in (January MMWR)
  • 1996 CDC, ACOG, AAP published first consensus statement on GBS National Prevention Guideline in June
  • 1997 Group B Strep Association launches its first website
  • 2002 The National Consensus Guidelines recommending routine screening for all pregnant woman was published
  • 2008 The CDC Active Bacterial Surveillance Core published data that showed an 80% drop in GBS neonatal morbidity and mortality
  • 2014 WHO convened the first meeting of the Product Development for Vaccines Advisory Committee (PDVAC); GBS and RSV identified as pathogens that cause a large burden of disease

Globally, it is estimated that EOD makes up 60-90% of GBS disease cases. The mean incidence of GBS disease in infants 0-89 days old is estimated to be .53 cases of GBS infection/1000 live births. The highest incidence of cases is reported to be in the continent of Africa, however, additional studies need to be conducted in low-income countries to better assess the true burden of disease. Prevention methods worldwide include providing prophylactic treatment (antibiotics) to women that are either high-risk or have tested positive for GBS, during labor. With treatment, there is only a 1/4000 chance of the baby becoming infected compared to a 1/200 chance if no treatment is given. In order to identify those who qualify for treatment, a culture-based method can be used to screen all pregnant women between 35-37 weeks for vaginal or rectal colonization of GBS. On the other hand, a risk-based method identifies pregnant women with risk factors for EOD such as fever, preterm delivery, and being in labor for 18 or more hours.

Although the administration of antibiotics during labor reduced EOD from .75 cases of GBS infection/100 live births to .23 cases of GBS infection/100 live births, GBS disease morbidity in infants and mothers is still significant and likely underreported. Antibiotic treatment and GBS disease education are more accessible to pregnant women in high-income countries than those in low-middle income countries. It is likely that challenges related to access to care and health system deficiencies limit the use of antibiotic treatment in low-middle income countries. As a result, the development of a cost-effective vaccine may be able to help bridge an awareness gap.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), developing a vaccine for maternal immunization is a priority when it comes to GBS disease. In 2016, the WHO Product Development for Vaccines Advisory Committee held a technical consultation to discuss vaccine development. Ultimately, the committee determined that the global burden of GBS disease cases that result in stillbirths needs to be assessed. In addition, standardized antibody assays need to be developed in order to find correlates of protection. Vaccine targets such as the type III capsular polysaccharide (CPS) and proteins on the GBS bacterial surface have also been identified. As new vaccine development ideas for GBS disease are being discussed, here are some foundational components that the Group B Strep Association (US/International) and Group B Strep Support (UK/EU) groups feel have an important role to play in the introduction of the vaccine to pregnant women across the globe:

  • Standardized definition of disease worldwide.
  • Standardized monitoring of disease worldwide.
  • Routine prenatal care widely available in which a vaccine can be delivered.
  • Education of health professionals and parents and expectant parents about group B Strep and the vaccine.

Check out these CDC podcasts, if you want to learn additional information about GBS disease during International GBS Awareness Month!

The Dire State of Reproductive Rights Worldwide

Each day, an estimated 830 women die of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Disproportionately affected are adolescent girls and women living in rural and impoverished areas. Providing women with universal access to family planning is one important and cost-effective way to help reduce maternal deaths. Doing so would decrease maternal deaths by a third. In developing countries, investing in family planning would lead to 2.4 million fewer unsafe abortions (one of the top causes of maternal deaths worldwide according to the WHO) and 5600 fewer maternal deaths related to unintended pregnancies. In addition, it would decrease infant mortality by anywhere from 10 to 20%.

Availability of family planning services has clear benefits in protecting the health of women and children, but it also offers so much more than that. When women can plan the timing and spacing of their pregnancies, women are more likely to attend and finish school; achieve higher levels of education; gain access to better job opportunities; contribute positively to her community; and improves the chances that she will invest in her children’s health, education, and well-being. In short, when women do better, societies do better.

This is all at grave risk now. As part of Trump’s first executive order, he reinstated the global gag rule which when implemented, states that the US can withhold family planning foreign assistance to any foreign non-governmental organization that so little as provides information on abortions, and that’s even if the organization receives funding from other sources. It’s important to note that the US already prohibits any foreign assistance from funding abortions under the Helms Amendment, which has been in place since 1973.

The re-enactment of the global gag rule comes as no surprise, as historically it has been re-enacted by every Republican president since Reagan then overturned by every Democratic president. Ironically although it has been argued that the gag role was put into place to decrease the number of abortions, a Stanford study found that abortions actually increased in years that the gag rule was in effect. It has also been shown that cutting off family planning funding to these organizations severely limits and in some cases, completely ceases, their ability to provide contraceptives and reproductive health services, thus increasing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions and further worsening maternal health outcomes.

The newest reinstatement of this rule however, extends far beyond the scope of the original rule and withholds all US global health assistance, not just family planning foreign assistance, to organizations that perform or provide any counseling, referrals, information, or advocacy on abortions. This revision of the global gag rule will not only hurt the millions of women in some of the poorest areas of the world who heavily rely on US-funded organizations which provide family planning services like contraception, but now impacts vulnerable men, women, and children alike. That’s because many of these organizations provide so much more than reproductive health services. Many of these organizations are hospitals and clinics, which in addition to reproductive health services, provide the full spectrum of medical care including life-saving childhood vaccinations, treatment for survivors of gender-based violence, HIV prevention and care, prenatal and postnatal care, and play a vital role in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like Zika and Ebola.

This is an unprecedented setback for the global health community and a huge threat to the advances that we have made in the fight against emerging infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child mortality to name a few. We cannot let the progress we’ve worked so hard for be eradicated. Let us always remember that progress is something we must work for everyday, a call to action that is becoming more imperative in the precarious times ahead of us.

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US support for family planning foreign assistance currently stands at $575 million to 40 countries. With the institution of this new rule, $9 billion of global health assistance to 60 countries is currently at stake.

Here are a few ways to get involved:

Read APHA’s statement opposing reinstatement of the global gag rule.