The Staggering Incidence of Breast Cancer in the Bay Area

Check out this piece in Tuesday’s edition of my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, discussing research by the Public Health Institute on the bizarrely high incidence of breast cancer in Bay Area counties. It’s fascinating. Marin County has for years been considered a hotbed for this disease, without much explanation as to why, but now it seems that multiple Bay Area counties – with the exception of San Francisco County itself – are showing similar rates. No research was undertaken in this project to determine why, but getting a handle on which regions have the highest incidence rates is a good first step for further exploration.

This image shows the counties and regions in which invasive breast cancer is 10%-20% higher than in other parts of the state – two other regions were seen with similar incidence rates in Southern California:

Picture copyright of San Francisco Chronicle

Juvenile Detention Centers Miss Key Health Indicators for Girls

I listened to a great NPR report this afternoon by Jenny Gold about juvenile detention centers and how they’re missing some key indicators of the health status of girls that enter into the system. As someone specializing in adolescent girls’ health, I was pretty fascinated – it detailed the personal experiences of a few girls being seen in a New Mexico facility and also tried to address ways it could be rectified. Detention centers can actually be helpful entry points for girls and young women to be connected to healthcare resources (we’re talking mental and physical health, so everything from counseling to substance abuse help to medical attention if they are victims of assault or violence or have seen physicians only irregularly).

One of the biggest issues facing these girls was confidential disclosure of their health status and any social, emotional, and physical issues they were facing. Developing rapport with a provider at a detention facility can be difficult in and of itself, but the girls reported having to answer personal questions in an open-door location, often with men and boys – staff or other teens – present; unsurprisingly, this made it difficult for many girls to feel that they could answer questions of a personal nature (sexual behavior, drug and alcohol use, history of assault, abuse or violence) honestly and openly. What we do know about these girls – 41% have vaginal injury consistent with sexual assault, 8% have positive skin tests for tuberculosis, and 30% need glasses but don’t have them – shows that getting all of this information early on is essential for appropriate and timely care.

One proposed solution to this – getting as much information as possible from these girls about their health status and the best ways to then help them, treat them, and connect them with resources – was to have them fill out a survey themselves. Currently, girls are asked 35 questions by an intake nurse when they arrive, that cover things like current medications, alcohol or drug use in the last 24 hours, and whether they have a history of self-destructive behavior. The proposed survey in the New Mexico facility is 132 questions, and according to one facility employee the time that would take is just not feasible given the traffic and business of the facility. Researchers and providers implemented a pilot study of the survey for 30 girls at the detention facility.

Of course, I can’t comment on the actual level of frantic activity in the specific facility at hand, but I can say that having a questionnaire that catches health issues which can be immediately and effectively addressed can prevent a host of issues from getting worse as time goes on without treatment – potential injuries from abuse or assault, needing STI screenings for victims of rape or girls who are sexually active without access to contraceptives or regular gynecological care, and of course mental health resources and immediate connection with social workers or therapists for those girls in need. Either having the girls fill out the survey via computer themselves or having a nurse help them would also be enormously helpful in the long run. This can also be a great way to track the care progress of these girls over the years, as many go in and out of detention centers. For girls who have experienced assault or abuse or multiple infections and injuries, this can be an easy way to follow-up with them without having to go through essentially baseline assessments of their well-being every time they enter a facility.

Some of the sobering stats about the girls from this particular New Mexico facility from this report: Of the 30 girls who participated in the piloting of implementing this survey, 12 needed immediate medical care, and 23 were coded as needing medical care within 24 hours, based on the survey’s questions. Intakes without this survey missed essential things, like burns on one girl’s torso and chest.

Check out the whole report here. I have no doubt that detention centers are in dire need of additional resources and likely way more staff than they have, for more than just this particular issue of adolescent girls’ health, but if the issue is there being one nurse for multiple intakes, having the girls fill out the survey on a computer themselves – when they’re more likely to be honest than in discussion with a nurse anyway, seems like the best solution to these kind of initial entry screenings. Especially since poor physical health is an indicator of recidivism, increasing the likelihood of girls ending up back in a facility.

Integrating Family Planning and HIV Services Benefits All

Some pretty great research is cropping up at the 2012 International AIDS Conference, and it’s hard to pick just one finding to reference, but I do love infographics and I do love family planning – so I found something that combines the two! Population Action International, a truly fantastic research and advocacy organization focused on women’s reproductive health access and care, and they make a great point about the advantages and importance of providing both family planning and HIV services at the same time and in the same place. They point out that mother-to-child HIV transmission can be reduced, stigma may decrease, and both time and money are save. Take a look:

Combining HIV and family planning services (courtesy of Population Action International).

Another issue at hand is that of the relationship between a provider and a patient or client. Family planning clinics have a better chance of establishing long-term relationships with women – particularly if women have multiple children – given that they also sometimes aid in pre- and post-natal care or help connect women to those services, which increases the likelihood of women who test HIV+ to getting the treatment they need. Again, all in one place!

Follow along at #AIDS2012 on Twitter to stay abreast of everything going on in D.C.

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.

Is This Real Life? The Reproductive Rights Version

My support of a woman’s right to choose is 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 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.

Sebelius Caves, Girls Pay the Price

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard that Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has blocked the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration that the over the counter (OTC) drug Plan B, commonly known as the ‘morning after pill,’ be made available without a prescription for girls of all ages. It is currently available without a prescription to girls ages 17 and up, and requires a prescription for girls ages 16 and below.

It is worth noting that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled the FDA. This is not insignificant. The purpose of HHS is to promote the health, safety, and well-being of Americans. The FDA is an obvious component of this. While the FDA is an agency of HHS, the purpose of the FDA is to promote and protect public health, through the regulation of OTC and prescription medications, vaccines, food safety, medical devices, and more. They do this through clinical trials and testing, which is how we come to know of drugs’ side effects as well as how significantly they aid in the relief of what they purport to treat. The FDA recruits researchers who understand both the purpose of and execution of this research. Attempts have been made to loosen the regulations of the FDA; for example, some terminally ill patients have petitioned the FDA to allow them to access experimental drugs after Phase I of a trial – the FDA has denied these requests due to the lack of research regarding a drug’s long-term effects post- Phase I. The FDA is not without criticisms; they have been accused of being both too hard and too lax on the pharmaceutical industry. Members of the FDA have also expressed feeling pushed to present certain results. Scientists at the FDA complained to Obama in 2009 that they felt pressured under the Bush administration to manipulate data for certain devices, and the Institute of Medicine also appealed for greater independence of the FDA from the powers of political management.

The commissioner of the FDA, who is a physician, reports to the Secretary of HHS. Sebelius’ job is not one of medicine or research, and requires a background in neither. It does require a background in politicking, which is exactly what we’re seeing here. The purpose of pointing that out, and of articulating that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled an FDA recommendation, is that Sebelius’ refute would not be based on differing scientific results, or research that opposes the FDA’s recommendations – because there is none. The override has different drivers, and the assumption floating out there – for good reason, since there is little alternate explanation – is to appease social conservatives and the anti-abortion contingents.

Plan B is not the abortion pill. It is the equivalent of an increased dose of a daily birth-control pill, and has no effect on already established pregnancies – it prevents pregnancy from occurring. Scientists within the FDA unanimously approved the access of the drug without a prescription for girls of all ages, after an expert panel put the recommendation forward. It is, to quote a USC pharmacist, one of few drugs that is so “simple, convenient, and safe.”

The conservative Family Research Council claims that requiring a prescription will protect girls from sexual exploitation and abuse – I fail to see how requiring a girl to get a prescription will protect against sexual violence, especially since girls may be attempting to get Plan B because sexual violence has already occurred. This comment is also a flagrant indication of misunderstanding of sexual violence and abuse – a young girl is not likely to disclose to an unknown physician that she is being sexually abused or assaulted and that’s why she needs a prescription for Plan B. Make no mistake, this ban is a victory for anti-abortion rights activists. If a girl cannot prevent a pregnancy from occurring, she is subsequently faced with trying to terminate an existing pregnancy (again – that could have been prevented!). Given how reproductive and abortion rights have been systematically chipped away at for the past few years, this girl who did not want the pregnancy and tried to prevent it from happening but was denied because she is shy of 17 years, will be in an even worse position. This is what anti-abortion activists are counting on – that once she is pregnant she will have to carry to term.

Plan B can prevent abortions from happening. HHS, with its mission of protecting the health and welfare of all citizens, should do everything they can to protect the health of girls’ reproductive development, which includes the prevention of unwanted pregnancy at its earliest stage. The girls under the age of 17 who need Plan B the most are the ones who also need it to be as easily accessible as possible. Much like requiring parental permission for abortions for girls under the age of 18, this ban actually can put girls at risk. Many girls will not have the family support, financial means, or healthcare to manage a pregnancy; some girls may face parental and familial abuse if they have to admit to needing to prevent a pregnancy with Plan B. What if a girl is a victim of sexual assault within her family? Should she be forced to deal not only with this trauma, but also have to determine how to prevent herself from being forced to carry a fetus to term as a result of this tragedy? Most girls under the age of 17 do not have easy access to clinicians and hospitals on their own, nor are they able to navigate our increasingly complex healthcare system on their own, which they would not only need to do to access Plan B, but would need to do within 72 hours for the pill to be effective. Girls whose bodies are not ready for pregnancy, girls who were victims of assault and rape and incest, girls whose futures will be dramatically changed and opportunities truncated – they all become casualties of this ban. Before we start sex-shaming and proclaiming that they shouldn’t have had sex if they didn’t want to deal with the consequences, let’s remember that these girls were not miraculously impregnated. Whether consensual or not, a boy was involved. This is a gendered issue – the girls are the ones who will have to deal with the lack of access to Plan B, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Originally, advocates in 2003 successfully petitioned Plan B to be available OTC for girls 18 and up (after having been available with a prescription since 1999), but a judge overruled that decision and lowered the age to 17 after he deemed the decision had been made politically, not for scientific reasons. It appears that history is repeating itself.

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker – which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.