Last month The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted its second International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium. The event brought international health leaders together at the Fairmont Chicago for a day of discussion on international public health issues pertaining to women. Attendees included members of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as well as a number of students from Chicago’s universities including Northwestern, University of Chicago, Loyola, and DePaul.
The day began with the keynote speaker Dr. Olufunmilayo “Funmi” Olopade, who is the Walter L. Palmer Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine and Human Genetics, associate dean of Global Health, and director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago. Dr. Olopade’s work has focused on cancer risk assessment and found that on a global scale there is still little access to detection and treatment for cancer. Breast and cervical cancer are the primary cause of premature death in young women today. When she first began her practice here in Chicago Dr. Olopade noticed cancers similar to what she saw at medical school in Nigeria. The reality was that cancer was a death sentence for many at the time, for patients had to wait almost two years to get a mammogram at Cook County Hospital. If these issues existed then and still exist today, then why aren’t we galvanized to treat everyone with breast cancer? Dr. Olopade believes that it is a matter of access. She currently serves on the board of directors of Cancer IQ, which serves to use real-time clinical and genomics data to empower oncologists everywhere to deliver the highest level of care. Dr. Olopade believes that genetic analysis is the cheapest action we can take in the prevention of cancer, and should be applied to patients worldwide. Likewise, clinical trials should be applied to populations all over the world rather than just those that house large research universities such as the United States.
The first panel I attended was titled “Sanitation and Hygiene for All!” One of the speakers was Rebecca Fishman, the director of operations and special projects at WASH Advocates, which is a nonprofit initiative that focuses to solve the challenges related to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene. WASH is currently working on a program in Indonesia to empower a behavior change that will increase toilet use within communities. Other projects include culturally appropriate books on menstruation and a “toilet park” in India. The other panelist was a social entrepreneur named Michael Lindenmayer, who confounded Toilet Hackers, an organization committed to the 2.5 billion people without access to a toilet. Lindenmayer sees proper sanitation as the “ultimate vaccination” and uses Toilet Hackers as a platform to promote grassroots awareness building and foster application and collaboration. The conversation made clear how proper sanitation is a sometimes under-emphasized global need, even though diarrhoeal disease is the second leading cause of death among children under five. Among the Millennium Development Goals, it was the furthest off its target.
The next panel was titled “Collaborative Approaches to Non-Communicable Diseases.” It featured Nalini Saligram, the founder & CEO of Arogya World, a global non-profit organization working to prevent non-communicable diseases through health education and lifestyle change. Non-communicable diseases, or “NCDs,” became a familiar term after the WHO coined it in 2011. These diseases include heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and diabetes. They are linked by risk factors such as a sedentary work environment, abundant food, and long term chronic stress, but are largely preventable. Dr. Saligram emphasized how NCDs are not a first-world issue, but account for 2/3 of deaths in the world and 80% of those in developing countries. Through a partnership with Nokia Life, Arogya World has been using mobile technology to improve public health in a program called mDiabetes. This initiative in India has sent diabetes prevention text messages to over 1 million people. These messages were consumer tested and sent to all parts of the country, in areas both urban and rural. Another program is using mobile phones to survey 10,000 women in 10 different countries in order to better understand the impact that NCDs have on women. The panel made it clear that we will continue to hear about NCDs long into the future. It is an interesting public health issue where the solutions are known, such as healthier foods and more physical activity, but how we go about encouraging them is the challenge.
The day finished with a keynote conversation by some of the youngest leaders in global health initiatives today. Barbara Bush, the CEO and cofounder of Global Health Corps, was joined by Maya Cohen, the current executive director of GlobeMed. The discussion was moderated by Sheila Roche who is the chief creative and communications officer at (RED). In 2005 Roche joined Bono and Bobby Shriver to create Product (RED), the first business and consumer driven initiative to raise money and awareness for the fight against AIDS in Africa. Many may be familiar with (RED) through their products at Target. To put it simply, I found the discussion to be an inspiration in the emerging discipline of global health. More than ever is it clear that young people are developing an interest in utilizing their own unique talents in order to benefit the world. Global Health Corps selects an incredibly wide range of skill sets for their fellowship program. Likewise, GlobeMed is bringing its network to college campuses all across the United States in order to mobilize student advocates. Roche echoed this sentiment repeatedly, but if Bush and Cohen are setting the example then there is great hope for the future of global health.
More information regarding the event as well as full audio clips of the panels can be found on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs Website.