Category Archives: Health Education

Maternal Health and the Status of Women

Both globally and domestically, maternal health and the standing of women are inextricably linked. If women do not have the means and access to give birth safely, with trained and educated midwives, physicians and nurses, with appropriate prenatal education and care, it is often indicative of the standing of women in their communities and countries overall. Women’s inequality is also linked to the soaring population growth in developing countries, which will pose a range of new challenges for the next few generations.

Some may point to the United States as an anomaly, citing women’s increasing economic and financial independence, education, and leadership roles in America, while in terms of maternal health rankings, we remain pathetically far down the line for our resources (49 other countries are safer places to give birth than the U.S. – despite us spending more money on healthcare than anywhere else). Of course, the recent and incessant attacks on allowing women to access credible, accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and services makes this statistic not entirely…surprising, shall we say.

So, I found the incredibly detailed and visually impressive infographic by the National Post, pulled from spectacular data and research done by Save the Children to be particularly fascinating. What they did was combine information on the health, economic, and education status of women to create overall rankings of the best and worst countries for women, splitting the countries into categories of more developed, less developed, and least developed, and the countries were ranked in relation to the other countries in their category (the divisions were based on the 2008 United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects, which most recently no longer classified based on development standing). While these divisions and the rankings can certainly be contentious and may incite some disagreement (nothing unusual there, these kind of rankings usually are), I thought the results were interesting. Some highlights – Norway is first, Somalia is last. The United States was 19th, and Canada was 17th (Estonia fell in between us and the Great White North) in the most developed. Israel is first in the less developed category, and Bhutan is first in the least developed category. The full report with data from Save the Children is also available, if you want to learn more about the information combined to make this image. Take a look:

A Woman’s Place – Courtesy of the National Post

One thing that I thought was particularly great was that the researchers combined women’s health and children’s heath data to create rankings specific to being a mother, when that category is sometimes only assessed based on access to reproductive care.The specific rankings of maternal health highlights largely mimics the overall standing of women, as seen here – Norway is number one, again, and Niger falls into last place:

Mother’s Index, Courtesy of Save the Children

I think these images and graphs are particularly moving given one of the top health stories coming out of the New York Times today, which showed that a recent Johns Hopkins study indicated meeting the contraception needs of women in developing countries could reduce maternal mortality (and thereby increase the standing of women in many of the nations doing poorly in the above ranking) globally by a third. When looking at the countries in the infographic that have low rates of using modern contraception and the correlation between that and their ranking in terms of status of women, it’s not surprising what the JH researchers found. Many of the countries farther down in the rankings have rates below 50%, and for those countries filling the bottom 25 slots, none of them even reach a rate that is a third of the population in terms of contraceptive use – which of course in most cases has to do with availability, not choice. Wonderfully, the Gates Foundation yesterday announced that they would be donating $1 billion to increase the access to contraceptives in developing countries.

Also of note, and in relation to maternal and newborn health, is a new study recently published by Mailman researchers that showed PEPFAR funded programs in sub-Saharan Africa increased access to healthcare facilities for women (particularly important for this region, as 50% of maternal deaths occur there), thereby increasing the number of births occurring in these facilities – reducing the avoidable (and sometimes inevitable) complications from labor and delivery, decreasing the chance of infection and increasing treatment if contracted. This has clear implications for children as well (and why I think this study relates to the National Post infographic and the NY Times article), since newborns are also able to be assessed by trained healthcare workers and potentially life-threatening conditions averted – including HIV, if the newborns have HIV+ mothers and need early anti-retroviral treatment and a relationship with a healthcare worker and system. And it goes without saying that if a new mother is struggling with post-delivery healthcare issues, including abscesses and fistulas, or was dealing with a high-risk pre-labor condition like preeclampsia, the child will have an increasingly difficult early life, perhaps even a motherless one.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Health Education, International, Politics, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health

Physicians Won’t be the Ones to Help You Lose Weight

Surprise! Your doctor may not be the best person to get you to lose weight – and it seems that it’s largely because they are averse to talking about it at all. A recent article from NPR breaks down some of the troubling reasons behind why this relationship isn’t making real significant strides in this public health fight.

78 million Americans are obese. There are 164,000 primary care doctors that are able to treat them. That’s a daunting division as it is, but when you think about the average amount of time a physician sees a patient – maybe 20 minutes, it seems impossible to achieve the task of vastly reducing the prevalence of obesity. The kind of personalized information that is needed for each patient would take longer than 20 minutes to gather, and creating a personalized subsequent behavior change and nutrition plan takes even longer. Interestingly, the NPR pieces cites the American Association of Family Physicians in reporting that not even 50% of primary care providers calculate a patient’s BMI (there are a lot of problems with BMI as a measure, and they’ve been widely discussed – how they don’t take into account muscle mass, for example – but for some obese patients, they can be a reasonable crude measure of where the individual is in terms of major health risks and how to initiate a weight loss program). But physicians who know the history of a patient and have tracked their health for years are in the best position in terms of knowing how risky an individual’s weight is.

Of course that’s not all that needs to be considered – I actually don’t think it’s even the most pressing or pertinent issue as to why physicians aren’t able to tackle the obesity epidemic. As the NPR article says, the psychologist in charge of the University of South Carolina’s weight management center calls the topic of weight loss and obesity a “mine field.” There can be resistance in going to the doctor for any number of reasons – shame or embarrassment, frustration, avoidance or denial, and even the very real fear of what a physician might tell them. And, importantly, deep concern and worry about not having the means – financially, mentally, community or family-wise, to tackle what seems like insurmountable changes in lifestyle. On the other side, doctors claim that some patients react defensively if they suggest that weight loss needs to be in their future.

This is a complicated dance, and I can’t help but draw parallels in these kinds of responses to the relationship between eating disorder patients and their physicians, psychologists, and nutritionists. Weight is so inextricably tied to identity, personally and culturally, for so many people, that the mere suggestion of a necessary change – either gaining or losing weight – can feel like an assault on the person’s actual self. How do we best navigate this? These conversations, first of all, can’t be brief. They just can’t. They require a meaningful relationship between those negotiating solutions, and for the individual who is in a precarious health position – whether it be due to restricting and bingeing and purging, or due to inactivity and unbalanced diets and genetic factors – it requires the sense that the person ostensibly helping them knows them personally, what their fears and concerns are, is patient, and most of all, is able to be consistently present and supportive through the successes and inevitable failures of the journey. And those relationships can be mighty hard to come by.

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Filed under Disordered Eating, Health Education, Public Health

Social Media Continues to Make People Feel Bad About Themselves

A study out of the UK has found (as have others more than once), that use of social media sometimes doesn’t make you feel like…really socializing. Instead, it can make you feel anxious and depressed, which are more likely to make you feel withdrawn than anything else.

The study found that participants noted a drop in their own self-esteem after viewing the accomplishments of their Facebook friends. Combine this with the fact that 25% of them claimed to have had relationship issues due to online ‘confrontations’ (which could, of course, mean many things), that more than half were rendered uncomfortable when they couldn’t easily access their social media accounts, that other studies have claimed more socially aggressive (subtly termed ‘hateful’) folks use Facebook more often, that people often deliberately post bad pictures of their friends to make themselves look better and subsequently compare their weight, body size, and physical appearance to these friends, and that Facebook is cited in divorce proceedings as being problematic for couples, and you may be liable to think that this phenomenon offer little in the way of improving our lives.

A good thing to remember here, aside from the pretty remarkable things being done with social media in terms of education, research, medicine, and public health (this USC study is great news, and touches upon the influence of social networks in ways I’ve been exploring as it relates to substance use, sexual behavior, and disordered eating behaviors, and that other studies have shown the exact opposite in terms of emotional response, is that social media does allow users to tailor the perception and identity they project. Another recent study (I’ll try to find the URL for it!) showed, unsurprisingly, that what users often admire about their friends’ virtual lives is the positive sliver that their friends elect to promote about themselves.

Also encouragingly, those children and adolescents who will have known no life without social media, recently were surveyed about their use of technology and reported that they still preferred face-to-face communication. I put limits on myself in terms of use (though I’m sure to some of you it may not seem like it!) since I feel as though I miss a lot in terms of nuance when communication online, but it remains true that both my research and personal communication projects require a fairly consistent social media presence – I admit that I’m torn. As with most everything, balance is key, but how can we monitor our behavior in ways that allow us to strike that balance without teetering into territory that destroys our positive sense of self?

Thoughts? How about you ironically follow me on Twitter to discuss?

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Filed under Advertising, Child Development and Child Health, Education, Health Education, Media, Technology

SCOTUS for the Win!

Photo credit – ThinkProgress

Are you still a bit confused by the details? Check out this great paragraph in the Atlantic that details the decision.

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Filed under Health Education, Health Policy, Media, Politics, Public Health

Child Mortality – What Are the True Biggest Causes?

A great image from Population Services International‘s most recent issue of their magazine, Impact, from the cover article written by Desmond Chavasse, Ph.D, Vice President, Malaria Control & Child Survival, PSI, about causes of child mortality globally.

Causes of Child Mortality – Image courtesy of Population Services International

One of the purposes of the image, of course, is to show the stark contrast between directed funding for treatment and eradication of certain diseases and the number of children afflicted with these illnesses. How does this impact our understanding of global health and of the marketing around certain hot topic health issues and ways in which donors feel as though they are contributing to a decline in preventable deaths?

When I worked in development for HIV/AIDS organizations, it was fascinating to speak with donors about their reasons for giving and their understanding of the prevalence and incidence (and the general audience grasp of the word incidence, which is the measure of risk of contracting a certain illness or disease within a specified time frame) of HIV. Contrast this with the understanding of malaria, TB, diarrhea, deaths due to childbirth complications (for the mother and the infant), and the gap between perception and reality was startling. In no way do I want to deny the importance of consistent development support for all diseases on a global scale, but I do think there is something lacking in terms of the education around these issues for donors and even some advocates.

Solutions? Come chat with me on Twitter.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Health Education, International, Public Health

Is This Real Life? The Reproductive Rights Version

My support of a woman’s right to choose has been well-documented. I champion a woman’s freedom to make a decision about whether or not she should be carrying a fetus, and the availability of resources for her to safely and quickly terminate a pregnancy if she sees fit.

We are in troubled, troubled times. Ceaseless efforts to deny women these rights are abound, and I could link to hundreds of articles that document this, but the handful I’ve chosen certainly upset me enough. I, along with scores of women’s health advocates, have tried any number of measurable ways to fight back – raising more money; drafting opposing legislation and striking down initiatives; testifying before hearings; writing op-ed pieces that detail our positions and rationally lay out the reasons why these reproductive rights are essential to women’s health, well-being, and even economic prospects; explaining that abortions and contraception are also necessary for reasons far beyond prevention pregnancy, and that all reasons are valid and worthwhile.

We’ve been insulted, condescended to, systematically stripped of essential healthcare resources.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the hypocrisy of the anti-choice wing. Tired of the false rhetoric. Tired of their offensively misguided and false claims to care about women as much as they care about fetuses, tired of the aggressive push to force women to maintain pregnancies that they are unprepared for and do not want, and further impact their educational and economic statuses. Tired of the trumpeting of false information about contraception that is subsequently followed up by happily taking money from the very creators of products that prompted their supposed moral outrage. Tired of their total disregard of the reality of many of these women who make the decision to have an abortion. Tired of total disregard of the statistics that undermine their arguments about the United States valuing children and their yet-to-be-realized lives. Tired of the total disregard and dismissal of real ways that abortions could be prevented – complete and comprehensive sexual health education and easy access to a variety of contraceptives. Tired of the complete disdain for women as sexually independent beings, tired of their disgust of the sexual lives of women while giving men and their sperm an unlimited free pass and the ability to impregnate and take off without even a slap on the wrist. Tired of the inability to empathize and simultaneously mete out punishments to the half of the population they deem fit the ostensible crime of engaging in sexual activity. If you want to harp on the issue of responsibility, then it is essential to ensure that both parties are equally responsible in every way – and as about half of the links I have put in this post show, that simply does not happen. Women are disproportionately – vastly so – shouldered with the entire burden of and the entire blame. That’s the reality, and it can’t be separated from the issue.

I’m tired but not worn out. I remain entirely committed to this cause, and won’t be sidetracked by opponents who use everything from personal insults to false science to shaky numbers to try to distract me. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL, recently announced that she is stepping down – largely due to the fact that she feels millennials need to begin steering the abortion rights ship, to combat the intense dedication of anti-abortion activists. Over 50% of anti-choicers maintain that abortion is a primary issue for them in elections, while only about a quarter of pro-choicers say the same. Well, I’m here. This remains my number one issue. Are you with me?

A friend recently sent me yet another HuffPo article, that I certainly enjoyed, but that for some reason was the straw that broke my camel’s back in many ways, as I saw her argument struggling mightily to encompass all of the above reasons why we should protect contraceptive access for all women. I’m so tired, in fact, that my response to these attacks has been harrowingly brought down to the essential core that I never thought I would need to stray from when I first realized what being pro-choice was; stripped of the attempts to rationalize (issues of medical necessity outside of pregnancy prevention aside, issues of risk to the mother aside, issues of childcare concerns and education concerns aside) with those who are, in fact, irrational about these issues. What happens in my uterus is my business alone. If you want the babies that these fetuses become, that women made the decision they cannot care for, then there should be no difficulty in deciding that you should take them. Take them all. Take them lovingly and fully, not cynically or begrudgingly. Cultivate them for 9 months, care for the baby when it’s born, love her, feed him, clothe her, educate him, without any help from me. If your goal is to punish women who you think have made flagrantly immoral mistakes, let us air all of your dirty laundry as well, and dissect every single decision you in your life made, and force you to pay for it as we see fit. And by all means, find a way to keep the men who didn’t use condoms, or bullied their partners into not using contraception and subsequently fled, or who threatened or coerced their partner, sitting firmly next to a baby’s crib. Come up with solutions to the myriad of complex social and economic issues that contribute to reasons women get abortions. Re-educate yourself on the fundamental fact that it is not your right to dictate the decisions of another person, and while that lack of control may infuriate you, it’s the way it is.  What happens in my uterus is my business alone. Wherever I go, the uterus goes. You don’t get to stake your judgment flag in my sex organs selectively at will, running “protectively” towards it when it suits you, and fleeing from it (and from what it carries) when it doesn’t. You don’t get to be there at all!

So don’t tell me that we have a collective duty to care for these unborn babies when what you are actually doing is attempting to control the freedom of women while doing everything you can to make sure that no true collectivism actually does benefit women or their babies.

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Filed under Feminism, Health Education, Politics, Public Health, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Women's Health

Body Judgments Begin…Pretty Close to Birth

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written – I took six weeks off to finish my dissertation and prepare for its defense (I passed!), and to take a bit of a breather after all that required writing! But what better way to start a new month than with a new post?

One of the many reasons I went to graduate school to study adolescent female and women’s health was because I wanted to gain a better understanding of why women and girls develop disordered eating behaviors, what makes them worse, and most importantly, how to prevent them. And more and more studies are telling us what many researchers, clinicians, and patients themselves have been telling us for years.

A few recent studies in particular that have been published in the past few weeks highlight these issues well. One new study out of UCLA has again proven that strong self-perception is key to the prevention of risky behaviors in teen girls. The results of this study showed that overweight girls who had high body satisfaction and who were happy with their size and shape were less likely to engage in a range of unhealthy and disordered eating behaviors like fasting, skipping meals, and self-induced vomiting. And more importantly, the study also showed that these girls had lower rates of anxiety and depression, which are so disturbingly common among girls with burgeoning eating disorders.

And the best thing about the study’s results was the discussion that these public health experts, dieticians, and professors had, in which they emphasized that for effective, healthy weight-loss interventions for teens who may need to lose weight for real medical reasons (preventing the onset of diabetes or hypertension and increasing cardiovascular health, for example), these programs need to be rooted in positive self-esteem and the enhancement of self-image. When you feel better about yourself, you want to keep taking care of yourself. You are also more likely to want to share yourself with others, and creating positive social networks increases the likelihood that people will have supporters pushing them to stay healthy as well as a community that makes them feel worthwhile, appreciated, and worth the kind of self-care that diet and exercise changes require.

So why do companies, organizations, media outlets, and other vocal critics keep harping on the idea that shame, insults, and bullying will help people lose weight? To me, the root of this problem lies in the misguided thought that anyone else’s weight is anyone else’s business. It isn’t.

Another recent study has unfortunately shown something I find really upsetting. Preschoolers – remember, that’s ages 2-5 – show negative perceptions of overweight children. The way this study was conducted involved an adult reading four different stories to a group of children, in which one character was ‘nice’ and the other was ‘mean.’ They then showed the children pictures of one overweight figure and one normal weight figure, and asked them to select which one was the ‘nice’ character from the story and which was the ‘mean’ character. Nearly half of all students said that in all four stories, the overweight figure was selected as the ‘mean’ one. Mind you, these figures had no faces. No physical expressions. One was just bigger than the other. And because of that, the children thought they were meaner.

I mean…whoa. Ages 2-5 are in the early developmental stages, when children are absorbing and processing and incredible amount of information – verbally, visually, and physically – and learning how to reason. We do not need judgments about others’ weight getting ingrained at this age, creating perceptions that are very difficult to change. Of course, this one study bears repeating, and should incorporate additional measures of exploring these outcomes; nonetheless, these results are troubling.

Of course, this study begs the revisiting of one of my most pressing points on this blog. Weight, just like food, is not a characteristic that is inherent in measures of good versus evil. That’s very dangerous territory to traverse – once one allows weight to dictate the assessment of whether or not someone is not only of value and worth (societally speaking, this already happens, when overweight people are ignored, more easily dismissed, not taken as seriously), but whether or not they are actually truly ‘bad’ or ‘mean’ or capable of certain sins because they are overweight, one’s morality becomes game for critics. I also always remain shocked at some critics’ short-sightedness in this relam – if you yourself gain weight in the future – something which may happen for a variety of reasons – are you readily willing to take on the label of weakness, ‘meanness’, gluttony? The impassioned rhetoric around the blaming and shaming of overweight people is so starkly in need of an infusion of compassion.

What this shows is that children are inundated with messages, both direct and indirect, from so many different sources at such a young age, that the idea of being overweight is coded as bad in so many ways, that it seems nearly inescapable. To me, this means we have to keep making intense efforts to combat these messages, because we are climbing one steep hill.

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Filed under Child Development and Child Health, Disordered Eating, Health Education, Mental Health