Like many women of her generation, Sue was careful to get prenatal care and watch her weight gain as her doctor advised. In the early 1960s there were no warnings to avoid smoking or alcohol during pregnancy and no information about the potential hazards of environmental chemicals, either for Sue’s own health or the health of her baby. Now in 2012, new information suggests that some exposures that were not in Sue’s control, including some pesticides and industrial chemicals, may have affected her health and the health of her children. Nearly all persons in the U.S. were exposed through food.
This week’s observance of National Women’s Health Week, with its theme of “This Is Your Time,” underscores the need for every woman to stay vigilant, through regular health screenings, good nutrition and exercise, about maintaining her own health. I applaud the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for raising awareness this week that individual women need to make their own health a priority.
But I would like to broaden the conversation. So many of the threats to women’s health stem not just from their own choices but the environment they live in, the public policies that affect them and their access to health care – all factors beyond their control. I’m referring to things like whether a woman has health insurance to pay for health screenings, breathes air that is polluted or lives in a low-income community, or even whether medications are available to meet her distinct needs.
Guiding all of the work we do at the Public Health Institute (PHI) is the awareness of the social and economic factors that contribute to everyone’s health. Many of our cutting-edge programs focus on ways to change the conditions that shape a woman’s health and better understand her health needs:
- The Child Health and Development Studies (CHDS) at PHI is a landmark longitudinal study that tracks the health of 15,000 pregnant women from the SF Bay Area between the years 1959 and 1967 – such as Sue above – as well as their children. Their work includes the Three Generations Breast Cancer Study, the first womb-to-breast cancer study in the world, which also examines disparities in environmental exposures and breast cancer. CHDS is uniquely able to trace the long-term effects of environmental exposures in women and girls, examining the effects of chemicals including DDT and PCBs on fertility, pregnancy and the health of the mothers who were exposed and their children and grandchildren.
- In Kenya and Tanzania, PHI supports local organizations to increase women’s access to Misoprostol. An inexpensive and widely available drug, Misoprostol can prevent post-partum hemorrhage and unsafe abortion, the two leading causes of maternal mortality in many countries. Most important, evidence now shows that women can use this drug safely, in their communities, without going to a facility or seeing a provider.
- PHI’s Global Clean Cookstoves Project is at the forefront of developing clean energy technologies to make cooking safe, environmentally sound, and healthy for women and families. Together with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, PHI is field-testing state-of-the-art stoves with village women in Western Kenya to replace open-fire cookstoves used by 3 billion people worldwide. By identifying stoves that reduce killer levels of exposure, PHI hopes to reduce the impact of cookstove smoke, the fifth leading cause of death in developing countries.
- The Coalition Advancing Multipurpose Innovations (CAMI) at PHI works with researchers, biotechnology developers, policymakers, advocates and providers to promote the development and distribution of prevention products with more than one purpose. The products would prevent unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and other illnesses. For example, testing of a microbicide gel supported by CAMI has been shown to protect against acquiring both the AIDS virus and the genital herpes virus.
These programs don’t just better the conditions, health and lives of millions of women. Together, they are building stronger families and communities. Investing in women and mothers has a huge multiplier effect on the well-being and productivity of the family, the community, the nation and the world.