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International Women's Day 2012: Advancing Women's Health

The health status of women is linked to their fundamental freedoms and empowerment. Education and occupational opportunities as well as access to health care are crucial components for building a healthier future for women worldwide.
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By Susan Blumenthal, M.D.
Written in Collaboration with Jean Guo

With 3.4 billion women worldwide, women's health is a global issue today. Yet, societal and environmental factors including poverty, discrimination, and violence are undermining the advancement of women's health. For example, more than two-thirds of the world's refugees are women and children, and gender-based violence causes more deaths and disability among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined.

The health status of women is linked to their fundamental freedoms and empowerment. Education and occupational opportunities as well as access to health care are crucial components for building a healthier future for women worldwide. In many countries, however, the denial of women's basic rights negatively impacts their health and the trajectory of their lives. For example, women are deprived of an education in many nations. Globally, two-thirds of the people who are illiterate are women, and 41 million girls are denied access to a primary education.

Furthermore, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading causes of death worldwide for women between the ages of 15 and 19. Every day, an estimated 1,600 women die from preventable complications during pregnancy or childbirth, and 99 percent of maternal mortality occurs in the developing world.

In many developing nations, women are experiencing the burden of both infectious and chronic diseases. Female life expectancy has declined dramatically in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of HIV/AIDS. Today, women account for more than half of those suffering from the disease. Globally, young women are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than young men.

Additionally, the prevalence of chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease has increased dramatically worldwide over the past several decades. Non-communicable diseases cause more than 60 percent of deaths worldwide today. The number of people over the age of 60 is expected to reach 1 billion by 2020 and almost 2 billion by 2050, with women constituting a majority of the population. In the U.S., women over the age of 65 are predicted to represent 20 percent of the country's population by 2050. Therefore, the promotion of healthy aging must be a top priority in America and worldwide.

Improving women's health is critical for humanitarian, economic, and national security reasons. The spread of infectious diseases including AIDS and TB and epidemics like obesity and tobacco consumption do not stop at national borders. Yet while health concerns cross borders, so do solutions. Today, we have the science and technology to eradicate preventable disease but we now need the commitment, funding and political will to accomplish this goal. That is why the work of PEPFAR (a lifesaving program of the U.S. Department of State), initiatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the work of private foundations have been vital in developing effective interventions and supporting international health programs that address a range of global health threats to women. Improving surveillance of disease, advancing scientific research, strengthening health systems, increasing awareness of cultural issues, and emphasizing disease prevention, and promoting early detection and treatment are the cornerstones of ensuring a healthier future for women worldwide.

President Obama's Global Health Initiative addresses many critical health challenges including HIV/AIDS, TB, reproductive health, malaria, global hunger and food insecurity, with a special focus on women and girls. The U.S. Department of State, with the leadership and commitment of Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and the U.S. Agency for International Development, has directed much of their attention to issues that impact women and girls. Girls' education comprises 67 percent of USAID's education initiatives, and women receive more than 60 percent of loans from USAID-supported microfinance institutions. Just last week, the USAID launched its new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy in the recognition that long-term sustainable development will only be possible when women and men are given equal opportunity to realize their potential. Next week, Secretary Clinton will release the first State Department policy on gender to integrate these perspectives into the fabric of U.S. foreign policy.

While on this International Women's Day we mark the progress that has been made with the establishment of many innovative initiatives to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide, we must continue to focus on the challenges that remain. Only by ensuring that women's rights and women's health are essential elements of development can there be a path forward toward global progress and a better future for all in the years ahead.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center, and Senior Policy and Medical Advisor at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four Presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, and as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch at the National Institutes of Health. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. She is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a 2010 Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation and GQ magazine.

Jean Guo, an undergraduate student at Stanford University, serves as a Health Policy Intern at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.

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