Recap & Comment: DC Commission for Women Inaugural Policy Conference

On October 18, 2014 the DC Commission for Women hosted an Inaugural Policy Conference. The Women’s Collective was in attendance, attending the opening and panel sessions, as well as providing free HIV testing at the event. Specifically, we attended the DC Healthy Women panel, which gave an overview of key issues affecting the health of DC women.  Of particular issue to our clients, the panel discussed the effects of HIV in the city, as well as access to reproductive health care.

The DC Health Department spoke about HIV. They gave the sobering reminder that nearly 1 in 5 new cases of HIV in DC occur among African American heterosexual women. However, there is also encouraging news about the HIV epidemic in DC. Overall, the number of new infections in DC is decreasing. Additionally, for those diagnosed with HIV, access to health care is improving. Currently, 86% of people are linked to care within 3 months of an HIV diagnosis, compared to 50% in 2005

However, the panel discussed some actions we can take or continue to support, in order to improve health outcomes and access to care for people living with HIV. These include free access to condoms and clean needles to reduce the risk of HIV transmission; promoting HIV as a routine part of health care, so that all people will know their HIV status; and changing discussions around sex and sexuality, so that they are positive and affirming.

In addition to these actions discussed by the panel, The Women’s Collective is working to support health care access among women living with HIV. Towards this end, we identified access to high quality health care, that is both culturally competent and trauma informed, as one of our policy priorities. Health care access is crucial for women living with HIV, because there are gender-based disparities in HIV outcomes, particularly related to viral load suppression. For instance, a smaller proportion of women in care achieve viral load suppression, when compared to men in care. To address these disparities, and enable women living with HIV to be linked to care, retained in care, and achieve viral load suppression, we believe that support services, such as those provided by The Women’s Collective and made possible through Ryan White funding, can be effective. As such, we believe that in the changing health care landscape, Ryan White funding for support services needs to continue.

Reproductive health care was also discussed at the Healthy DC Women panel. Shockingly, in DC, 70% of pregnancies are unintended. We recognize that this statistic points toward the need for comprehensive sexual education, access to contraception, and access to abortion. However women in DC face particular restrictions: Congress has banned DC from using its own funds to pay for medically necessary abortions for Medicaid recipients. Policies such as this severely restrict a low-income woman’s ability to access reproductive health care, which could have long-lasting effects on her health and ability to meet her basic needs.

While the health forum, in particular, pointed to areas where policy change is very much needed, we want to applaud the focus on women’s issues by the DC government. Recognition of and meaningful discussion about the specific issues women in Washington, DC face is a crucial first step. We hope that this conference and the continued work of the DC Commission for Women can support the creation and enactment of policies to protect the rights and improve the well-being of women in Washington, DC.

The State of Sex Education in the US: Room for Improvement

In April, the Huffington Post using data from the Guttmacher Institute produced some pretty scary infographics highlighting the state of sex education (or lack thereof) in this country.  While it’s shocking that many states have no sex education requirement, it’s doubly shocking that where sex education is provided, that there are MANY states in which there is no requirement that: 1) HIV information be included or that 2) Information provided be medically accurate.

SexEdMaps1_2Of course, sexuality education courses aren’t the only place that people are getting their information—they’re getting it from movies, television, friends, parents, and, increasingly, people, and youths in particular, are getting their information from the Internet.  The thing about all of those sources, though, is they’re often not medically accurate.  Television and movies rarely show people practicing safe sex—you don’t see a conversation between two people about whether or not they’ve been tested, how recently, if they have a condom—and then you also rarely see consequences from that failure to negotiate safe sex or condom use (unless it contributes to some juicy story line or plot twist).

On the other hand, in a 2009 study, half of the websites that occurred within the top 10-15 hits on Google when someone searched for terms like “birth control,” “morning after pill,” or “sexually transmitted disease” failed to provide accurate or complete information.  Further, an issue brief released by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) that supported the qualitative data from our previous youth intervention findings showed that the misconceptions held by adults around HIV and sexual health can be passed through generations leading to increased silence around risk and reduced knowledge of the need for prevention services and care.

SexEdMaps4So with all of that misinformation out there, it’s even more imperative to ensure that schools have comprehensive and accurate sex education.  And comprehensive means comprehensive – not just one hour in health class in spring of your Sophomore year. It means starting to provide age-appropriate sexual health information at a young age that enables young people access to medically accurate information rather than misinformation and myths.

And it’s not just about the right to have accurate information—this cloud of misinformation around sexual health has real consequences. In 2010, youth between ages 13 and 24 made up 17% of the population, but made up 26% of new HIV infections. Most importantly, education on sexual health does not lead to an increase in sexual activity. Quality sexual health education often delays sexual activity, increases condom use, and decreases the total number of sexual partners. This data just goes to show that failing to provide sex education, failing to talk about HIV or STIs or contraceptives or condoms, failing to require information to be medically accurate—we’re not stopping young people from being sexually active! They will continue to engage in sexual activity, but the difference is that they won’t be safe or smart about it.

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Just as our health care providers have a responsibility to provide accurate information, our schools and our health classes have a responsibility to provide accurate sexual health information. Young people—and people of all ages—have a right to accurate and complete information about their sexual health so they have the tools to make the decisions that are right for them.

It’s National Women’s Health Week!

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This week is National Women’s Health Week (#NWHW) sponsored by the Office on Women’s Health. The goal is to empower women to make their health a priority. National Women’s Health Week also serves as a time to help women understand what it means to be well.

We know that women frequently put their own needs behind those of their families—including the need for comprehensive and quality health care. Moreover, 80% of mothers assume responsibility for their children’s medical visits and are the drivers of their family members and extended family members accessing care. This week, take the time to put your own health care needs first!

Now that the Affordable Care Act has been fully implemented, be sure to take advantage of the myriad of covered services:

–          Routine anemia screenings for pregnant women

–          Breast Cancer Genetic Test Counseling (BRCA) for women at higher risk of breast cancer

–          Mammography screenings for women over 40

–          Blood pressure and cholesterol screenings

–          Breastfeeding support and counseling for pregnant and nursing women

–          Cervical cancer screening

–          Immunizations

–          Contraception

–          Domestic violence screening and counseling

–          Osteoporosis screening

–          HPV DNA testing

–          STI screening and counseling – including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV

If you want to learn more, stop by HealthCare.gov and be sure to check with your insurance carrier to verify your coverage!