In the month of March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day (March 8) and the U.S. marks Women’s History Month. While strides have been made to emphasize the importance of investing in women to advance health equity for all, in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of good health and well-being, public health programs must do more to address the crucial role of women in determining health outcomes. In this issue of Dispatches, we explore the reasons why, highlighting program examples and some of the leaders contributing to this work.
“While The Task Force’s Children Without Worms (CWW) program focuses on children, we are actively shifting our programming to further incorporate women. Who knows children better than mothers after all?” said Mariana Stephens, Deputy Director of CWW. “This is why at CWW we recognize the importance of targeting women to help address health disparities and ultimately to have a greater impact on the health of the entire community.”
CWW works to control and eliminate soil-transmitted helminth (STH) infections, a neglected tropical disease caused by intestinal parasitic worms. STH programs have historically focused on children because infections lead to malnutrition and deficiencies like anemia, which undermines early childhood development.
However, research shows that women of reproductive age should also be a high-priority group for STH services because it causes maternal and fetus health issues such as malnutrition and underdevelopment. Therefore, CWW shifted its monitoring and evaluation activities from only school-based surveys to community-based surveys to ensure that women are reached.
These surveys capture data on who receives the deworming treatment so that programs can constantly improve to be more targeted. For example, when we surveyed in Bangladesh, more than three-fourth of the adult participants were women. Conducting community-level surveys also helps increase awareness about STH infections and improves treatment coverage of at-risk children because the surveys reach mothers of children who are not attending school, who therefore miss deworming treatments at schools.
This approach benefitted a family living near Saidpur, Bangladesh. The mother, a farmer named Mosammat, said she worried about her son’s fatigue and malnutrition which regularly prevented him from attending school. By participating in a survey with CWW and local partners, she received information on STH infections and how to prevent them and access treatments.
“My son receives deworming medicines twice a year. He is now healthier and better able to focus on his studies,” she said.
Prioritizing Women in Health Emergencies
While COVID-19 has impacted both women and men, women and girls are especially affected in health emergencies because they are often the first to be targeted, making up the majority of first responders and diverging resources from current efforts to improve gender inequalities. The United Nations’ “From Insight to Action: Gender Equality in the Wake of COVID-19” report stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted women through economic hardship, challenges with other health outcomes, increased gender-based violence, and the added care of children and family members during lockdowns.
Likewise, the opioid epidemic in the U.S. has had particular implications for women and children. Infants born to mothers with opioid use disorder may have long-term child health and developmental complications, including being born with addiction disorders that cause withdrawal symptoms known as neonatal abstinence syndrome.
A project by The Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII) is creating a surveillance network of clinical sites to improve understanding of maternal, infant, and child health outcomes following treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) during pregnancy.
“Due to gender roles, the opioid epidemic has greater consequences for women,” said Juneka Rembert, PHII Senior Business Analyst and lead on the MAT-LINK project. “So understanding the health outcomes caused by OUD specifically for women will help us understand the longer-term effects passed down to the next generation and could help us improve overall approaches to mitigate these generational impacts and help end the epidemic.”
The surveillance network will help the health community identify causes and outcomes of using opioids leading up to and during pregnancy to inform efforts to prevent, treat, and reduce opioid addiction.
A Call to Action for All Global Health
As a global health organization that works with partners in more than 150 countries to advance health equity, The Task Force will continue to tackle gender inequalities to achieve the goal of health and well-being for all.