ICFP 2013 Reflections: Maternal & Child Health, Family Planning… and NTDs

This post originally appeared on the Global Health Corps website here. Reposted with permission.

By Chelsea Ducharme, Global Health Corps Fellow 2013-14

As a current Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow, I was fortunate to attend the 2013 International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, jointly organized by the Ministry of Health of Ethiopia and the Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health. With a theme of “Full Access, Full Choice,” I was consistently inspired and challenged in attending presentations by researchers, political figures, advocates, youth, donors, and implementing organizations all fighting together for the health and rights of women and girls. It is evident that continued commitment is needed to address the estimated quarter of all women globally desiring to control pregnancy but not using contraception.

One method of ensuring sustained commitment for a healthier and more just future is building leaders of tomorrow. So, ICFP intentionally and heavily involved youth in the conference via several methods, including a two-day Youth Pre-Conference that focused on highlighting young voices, building skills, and empowering the next generation of leaders in family planning. During this event, the panel “Human Rights Approaches to Family Planning” framed my perspective for the rest of the week. The below thoughts from Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA, illustrate well the focus of the session:

  • “Human rights is for all of us – the best and the worst. The purpose of it is to provide a discourse of what a human being is. It is a verb, not a noun. There is no development without human rights.”
  • “Family planning is not about contraception and fertility rates, it is about a choice. A right to live without fear, stigma, and discrimination.”

I could not agree more. Her passion and provocative statements sparked a fire in each of us to do more. However, in listening and reflecting on these concepts, I couldn’t help but think about other human rights injustices that must be addressed to make a positive impact on the health of women and children worldwide. And though there are many, I propose an equally significant companion statement to one of Ms. Gilmore’s thoughts in light of a week that was also shared with the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene in Washington, DC (13-17 November): “Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are not about parasitic worms and bacterial infections. They are about a right to live without fear, stigma, and discrimination.”

NTDS are a group of seventeen diseases that infect one in six people around the world, often termed the “bottom billion” – the poorest of the poor. Of those one billion infected, an estimated 500 million are children. Though they have the ability to kill, NTDs are known to cause severe disfigurement and debilitation that impact not only their health and nutrition, but also education level and socioeconomic status, pushing populations into a cycle of poverty. Currently, only fifty cents can protect and treat one person for a whole year from seven diseases that comprise 90% of the global burden, such as onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis. Yet, as evidenced by the term “neglected,” addressing challenges associated with reducing NTD burden, such as lack of research, funding, advocacy, and political will, has been slow.

So in the aftermath of ICFP 2013, I propose the importance of universal access to both family planning and NTD prevention and treatment as vital to maternal and child health in most parts of the world. Mothers and children are particularly vulnerable to NTDs which have the ability to complicate pregnancies, threaten newborn health, severely disfigure, impair child growth, and reduce cognitive ability. As we work towards ensuring women can plan their births, let’s ensure a healthy pregnancy and that they can keep their children free of NTDs. As women become empowered to work through family planning access, let’s ensure NTD-related blindness or disfigurement doesn’t prevent them from their livelihoods. As women use family planning as an exit to the cycle of poverty for their families, let’s ensure NTDs don’t reverse this hard work. Just as meeting the need for family planning is one of the most cost-effective investments to increase income, education, and health among women and children, so is addressing NTDs.

We are all part of a global community and responsible for the wellbeing of each other…

“Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” –Paul Bloom, “The Case Against Empathy”

…so let’s ensure that no matter where you are born, your health is not a barrier to achieving your dreams.

“He who has health, has hope. And he who has hope, has everything.” -Arabian Proverb

Taking Action

As a GHC fellow, I share in our core belief that my generation has the ability to step forward, innovate, and make a positive impact on lives across the globe. If you’re interested in becoming a part of the health equity movement around these issues and others, here are some specific actions you can take:

  • Learn about the discourse following ICFP 2013 and how you can be a part of ensuring the basic right to universal family planning access.
  • Join the END7 movement, a Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases’ campaign that provides information and tools to build awareness and raise resources for NTDs.
  • Apply to be a fellow with the Global Health Corps. Applications are now open until 26 January 2013.