women’s health


Visualizing the toll of bad blood: It’s not just about preventing mother and child deaths | 

Guest post by Katie Leach-Kemon, a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Mother and child, Ethiopia
Mother and child, Ethiopia
Flickr, subcomandanta

For many members of the global health community, the term “maternal and child health” translates into saving the lives of women and children.

But to fully realize the mission of improving the health of this population in particular, we have to think about more than just preventing death. What is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide? Women and children, particularly those who are poor, disproportionately suffer from a disease that causes substantial disability: Anemia.

Anemia, which literally (in Greek) means lack of blood, is about starving the body of oxygen. Red blood cells carry oxygen to cells in the human body thanks to a protein known as hemoglobin, which contains iron.

Women and children suffering from low iron – whether due to malnutrition or other causes – end up suffering from anemia, essentially cellular asphyxiation.

A new study reported that in 2010, anemia as a whole accounted for around 9% of years lived with disability worldwide, making it an even greater cause of disability than depression. Iron-deficiency anemia, the type of anemia that causes the most disability, is associated with lower cognitive performance, difficulty concentrating, low productivity, weakness, and fatigue. It often goes undiagnosed, unrecognized even as it quietly strangles. Continue reading

The next big thing (pause) in sex: female condoms | 

Once upon a time, not that long ago actually, most American women didn’t use tampons.

After they had been invented and introduced as a product, it still took some seventy years for them to gain widespread adoption. People are loathe to change their habits when it comes to intimate parts of the body, even when there are obvious health benefits.

That’s what Patricia Coffey, who works at Seattle-based PATH on global health technologies, says when she argues that the female condom, which she helped develop, could be the next big thing in reproductive health.

Billions of male condoms are sold every year, but they put the onus on men to use them, or on women to get their male partners to use them. Sometimes those interactions are fraught with power imbalances or even threats of violence. With the female condom, one of which she brought to the studio to demonstrate, women can be more empowered in reproductive and sexual decision making.

But how much does a female condom cost to produce? Does it detract from sexual pleasure? Does anyone really use this thing, overseas or in the US? One-word spoilers: Too much, no, and yes, according to PATH. Listen to the podcast for the whole story, though, plus a review of the week’s headlines (Tanzanian agriculture, the American Masai warrior, and progressive mental health models in Guinea).

And don’t worry, I edited out the cringe-worthy sex jokes.

Subscribe and rate the Humanosphere podcast on iTunes. Past podcasts are here.

Rhetoric versus reality on Obama Administration’s AIDS policies overseas | 

Jessica Mack

This is a guest post by Jessica Mack

Jessica Mack is a global gender specialist and freelance writer. She is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand where she works on issues of violence against women and girls in the Asia Pacific region. More at www.jessmack.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @fleetwoodjmack

The Obama Administration talks a lot about integrating and coordinating our various global health projects, and also about how important it is to empower women. That’s the rhetoric. Here’s one womens health advocate’s view of the reality.


Preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS has a lot to do with promoting safe sex.

That may sound obvious, but it seems to remain a mystery to those in the U.S. Government who set our AIDS prevention policies overseas. Stemming the spread of HIV has as much to do with family planning and enabling safe sex as it does with ensuring access to affordable drugs, accurate education, or changing norms and mindsets at the community level.

So it would make a hell of a lot of sense if all money for HIV/AIDS prevention efforts also included money for family planning. But alas.

Though the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been touted as one of our nation’s most successful initiatives in global health (and certainly one of President George W. Bush’s most positive legacies) it continues to miss the mark on this important point.

Oddly, PEPFAR will allow funds to be used for condoms — but only if they are promoted for protection against HIV as opposed to pregnancy.

PEPFAR recently released its 2013 country operational plan (COP), the framework for how its funding should be used by developing countries. This included what activities should and should not be supported – with one big bolded addition.

Under the section titled “Family Planning” – which extolls the importance of family planning as an effective means for reducing HIV/AIDS – is added this sentence: “PEPFAR funds may not be used to purchase family planning commodities.”

Um, come again?

This bizarre prohibition has had and will continue to have the effect of systematically cleaving contraceptive services from HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention services, oftentimes quite literally into different clinic sites and distinct service providers.

It doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous.

Continue reading

Will Melinda Gates’ family planning boost improve women’s health overall? | 


Chris Kleponis, AFP/Getty Images

Melinda Gates

Today, in London, Melinda Gates and a few big guns in the British government did a much-needed and celebrated thing — getting billions of dollars from the international community to fund family planning services for some 120 million women and girls.

The Guardian Rich countries pledge $2.6 billion for family planning in global south

TIME Melinda Gates Launches Global Crusade for Contraception

Yes, this is another one of those promises of foreign aid that rich countries seem to make all the time and then break later when you’re not paying attention. But it’s important to recognize they do keep some of these promises (see funding for AIDS, malaria and child vaccines over the past 10 years) and this one does appear to have momentum.

Improved access to contraception has been estimated to reduce maternal mortality by a third. Providing women with greater control over reproduction is widely regarded as fundamental to empowering women, and as a basic human rights issue. Finally, the public does seem a bit more worried about global population growth these days.

So this campaign — largely led by Melinda Gates, against her church — may indeed represent a significant turning point for family planning and for maternal health worldwide.

But the question some raise, usually those way in the back of the room without access to the microphone or TV cameras, is if this is actually good for women’s health overall. Continue reading

Christy Turlington on maternal health & cause celebrities | 

I caught up with supermodel Christy Turlington Wednesday night as she walked from the Andra Hotel over to the Cinerama Theater for the Seattle screening of her documentary on the global problem of maternal deaths and disabilities caused in childbirth: “No Woman No Cry.”

Tom Paulson

Supermodel Christy Turlington chats with UW supermetrician Chris Murray and communications director Jill Oviatt

Turlington met with a number of local luminaries and experts on matters of global health, like the UW’s Chris Murray (who minutes before closed out a major global health meeting. See Horton post below), at a VIP reception sponsored by the World Affairs Council and the Washington Global Health Alliance. Continue reading

A century of women’s days: What to celebrate and what not to | 

Flickr, Prachatai

International Women's Day Thailand

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a celebration of women born out of the early 20th-century labor and suffragette movements.

Given its original socialist worker underpinnings, it’s perhaps no surprise this day is more widely celebrated in Europe and elsewhere than it has been in the U.S. (where even saying the “S” word seems to cause people to twitch.) Continue reading

Gender-based Global Health? | 

Indian Mother and Child

Flickr, DFID

Mother and child, Madhya Pradesh, India

Maybe even asking this question is a bad idea. Maybe it’s just me — either because I’m a man and/or a nerd.

But I can’t help but wonder if the latest trend of focusing the global health agenda on women and girls could actually do more harm than good.

There are many reasons why this would seem an obvious choice, why it just makes sense to focus health efforts on women and girls. Here are just a few of those reasons:

  1. Women give birth to all of us. A healthy birth and childhood prevents a lot of ills.
  2. Girls grow up to be women.
  3. Females often get short shrift in many communities and cultures due to gender discrimination. Putting an emphasis on improving female health and welfare can reduce unhealthy inequities.

I don’t think anyone would argue with those fundamental assumptions. Given these realities, it appears both wise and just to focus global health efforts on women and girls.

But how exactly would this be carried out? Continue reading