This Earth Day be a Champion for Environmental Science

Did you know that doctors are among the most trusted professionals in this country, specifically with regard to information about climate change? Environmental factors are hurting the health of millions of Americans every day and yet there is still a considerable lack of awareness about the harmful effects of things like extreme weather events, air pollution and other toxins.

As Earth Day approaches, it seems fitting that this year’s campaign is focused on environmental and climate literacy because it reminds us as ob-gyns how important it is for us to participate in the effort by leveraging the trust our patients have in us.  Our partner organization, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, has kicked off the week by launching a social media awareness campaign around Earth Day.  You can follow them on Twitter under the handle @FIGOHQ.

Last month, I spoke at the launch of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate Change and Health that has brought together ten associations representing nearly 500,000 physicians, including ACOG, to help increase awareness among the public and policymakers about the negative health effects of climate change on Americans. During my talk, I spoke about the fact that women face some of the greatest risks from climate change over the course of their lives, and especially during pregnancy. In affected regions, climate change puts women at risk of disease, malnutrition, poor mental health, lack of reproductive control, and even death. Additionally, women’s exposure to toxic environmental agents during the preconception and prenatal stages can have a profound and lasting effect on obstetrical and later life outcomes, including increased risk of birth defects and childhood cancer.

In 2016, ACOG adopted a policy which recognizes that climate change is an urgent women’s health concern and a major public health challenge endangering fetal health. In fact, we discover new evidence every day of how it can disturb fetal development. A recent NIH study found that exposure to extreme hot and cold temperatures during pregnancy leads to increased risk of low birth weight in infants.

While the connection between climate change and women’s health may not at first seem obvious, there are a number of ways it directly impacts women’s health.  You can look at them in several categories: a healthy pregnancy starts with clean air, clean water, no toxic chemicals, and stable climate.

Air pollution poses serious risks for women’s health.  It is linked to pregnancy loss, low birth weight babies, and preterm delivery.  Fine particle air pollution affects the placenta in pregnancy, and can interfere with fetal brain development.  Ambient and household air pollution result in 7 million deaths globally per year; these effects are worse in low-resource areas.

Heavy downpours and flooding mixed with high temperatures can spread bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that lead to contaminated food and water. This results in higher levels of methylmercury in fish and shellfish, a known cause of birth defects.

Increased use of pesticides can interfere with the developmental stages of female reproductive functions, including puberty, menstruation and ovulation, menopause, fertility, and the ability to reproduce multiple offspring. These toxic exposures also affect fetal brain development, and contribute to learning, behavioral, or intellectual impairment, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorder.

Extreme temperatures have fostered increases in the number and geographic range of insects. For example, Zika-carrying mosquitos have led to more than 1,500 infections in pregnant women across the United States and District of Columbia, and more than 3,200 infections in Puerto Rico and U.S. territories. Furthermore, extreme heat during pregnancy is tied to a 31 percent increase in low birthweight babies less than 5.5 pounds.

Unfortunately, in many cases, underserved and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by climate change. This includes individuals living in poverty, exposed to toxic materials via their occupation, who lack nutritious food, and live in low quality housing. That’s why access to health care is so critical.

We don’t all have to be experts in environmental science, but we all need to support rigorous scientific investigation into the effects of climate change and toxic environmental agents. With evidence to support us, ob-gyns must be the authoritative voice and help to ensure that the discussion on climate change includes protecting the health and safety of all women and children.

This blog post was co-authored by Nathaniel DeNicola, MD, MSHP, the ACOG liaison to the American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Council on Environmental Health, and social media director for the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics Working Group on Reproductive and Developmental Environmental Health.

Four Ways ACOG Has Impacted Global Women’s Health in Just the Past Year

In 1994, my wife and I arrived for our first two-week mission in the Dominican Republic and were stunned by the line of people waiting outside of the hospital for us. Since medical school more than a decade earlier, we had dreamed of participating in mission projects around the world to help women in dire need of basic medical care. But then my wife began her career as a nurse, we started our family, and after residency I went into private practice. So, that goal went by the wayside. However, our trip to the Dominican Republic quickly reignited our hopes of providing necessary ob-gyn services in low resource settings. Living in the United States, it’s easy to forget that many countries around the world are battling poverty and disease and don’t have the same infrastructure and safety nets we do. After that first trip, I came home to a fully equipped operating room with the proper tools and lights that worked, my wife didn’t have to hold a flashlight during surgery because the power was out. We had carpeting and hot water at home. From that point on, my eyes were opened.

Since that first trip, I’ve continued to travel and offer my services to advance health care in struggling countries. This work has taught me that we can really make a difference in global women’s health by sharing our knowledge and resources as ob-gyns. As my presidential term at ACOG comes to a close, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what we have accomplished from my six-point plan, developed over a year ago, to help improve the health of women and children worldwide, with a focus on training and providing health care around the world.

The first step was to make these kinds of missions more easily identified and attainable. While it’s often not realistic to leave your practice for months; two weeks is doable. That’s why we developed a listing or database of non-profit organizations involved in two-week mission work in which some of our members had participated. Now on the ACOG website there is a global health resource center. ACOG members can discover more information about each organization, check these organizations’ calendars for potential projects, talk with ACOG fellows and junior fellows who have done projects, and sign up. And we must continue to get the word out so more members use and add to the database.

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we’ve also formed and grown the Alliance for Innovation in Maternal Health (AIM), which creates instructional and educational portfolios, or “safety bundles,” to fight high rates of maternal mortality in the United States and now Malawi. Women living in rural areas of Malawi give birth at community health centers that can’t perform operative vaginal deliveries or C-sections. When these situations arise or other complications occur, women are transferred to the central hospital in the city, most often without any attempts at stabilization prior to transport. They are often in poor condition when they arrive, which results in many otherwise preventable maternal deaths. The AIM postpartum hemorrhage bundle has been instituted into practice at both the community health clinic and referral hospital. To date, more than 130 local people have participated in vital simulations to help these patients. And while we do not have formal data on the program yet, we know that several women have received life-saving care because the teams were able to communicate and execute care in a way that they didn’t before. We anticipate many more successes that will hopefully mirror the kinds of gains we have seen here in the United States.

In addition, last year ACOG partnered with Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit group that helps educate and train local health providers in underdeveloped countries in various areas of obstetrics and gynecology. It begins with local providers telling us what they need and then we come up with a plan and work together to make it happen. As of today, we have completed four site assessments and will begin offering global service opportunities for fellows in the four countries by May 2017.

Lastly, in Ethiopia, we received a five-year grant to develop a plan in partnership with the Ethiopian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to strengthen their ob-gyn residency training programs and curriculum, improve continuing medical education, support the publishing and accessibility of clinical outcomes research, and develop an ob-gyn examination and certification program. Since its inception, the program has made great strides by working “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Ethiopians. As a result of this program, there is now interest from other African countries to begin the same program.

The bottom line is, many women around the world are lacking access to quality, evidence-based health care and they are paying the price with their lives. As ob-gyns, we have the power to prevent this by using our skills to help reduce global maternal morbidity and mortality, as well as improved quality of life. These programs are a prime example of how we can achieve that by dedicating some of our time and effort to a cause that is greater than ourselves. While we’ve accomplished a lot, we still have much to do. So, even if you aren’t sure you have the time, consider any way you can contribute. Believe me, it will make a difference.