Sept. 21, 2015 | Maria Shriver

Serviam. I will serve. That is the motto of Ursuline Academy, the Catholic high school I attended in Dallas, Texas. It was also the ethos of the Catholicism that I grew up with. I was taught — in school, in church, in my home — that service is a form of holiness, and I believe that the philanthropic foundation my husband and I run is the logical extension of this lesson.

Pope Francis has put the fight against poverty at the center of his papacy. His words and actions remind me of the strong link between faith and work. I am proud to stand with him as a member of the Church, joining the global community of people committed to improving life for “the least of these.” So many of the partners in this community are people of faith — many different faiths, I might add — and they express their faith in action. We are told in the Gospel of Mark not to hide our light under a bushel, but I find that many people who have never read Mark take seriously the injunction to give their light to all who are in the house.

[Read more essays on Faith, by Deepak Chopra, Martha Beck, Pema Chodron and many more Architects of Change, as part of this special series]

One of the hallmarks of Pope Francis is that he listens, truly listens, to the poor. In the past 15 years, I’ve tried to do the same as I’ve sought to answer the hard questions about poverty — why are people poor and what are the best ways to help them lift themselves up? From those conversations and from the evidence, one thing I have learned is that it’s impossible to study poverty without studying the unique predicament of women and girls in societies around the world.

Women and girls are more likely to be poor, and more likely to suffer from the consequences of poverty, like ill health and the lack of education. So when the Pope talks about the fight against poverty, he is also talking about a better life for women and girls in particular.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay] 

And there’s more. Because women and girls are caretakers who give so much to their families and their communities, empowered women and girls are actually one of the best resources we have in the fight against poverty for everyone. When women and girls are healthy and educated and have the power to make decisions, the decisions they make build the foundations for a thriving future for the world. On this issue too, the Pope has been a champion, commenting specifically on gender inequality and the “scandal” of wage differences between men and women. Pope Francis is helping millions of people make the connection between women and girls and the fight against poverty.

I have decided to devote the rest of my life to fighting poverty and pursuing equality for women and girls. It is what my head and my heart tell me to do. It is how I can follow through on the promise I made as a girl at Ursuline Academy — to serve. In this era we are blessed — not only those of us who are Catholic, but all of us — to have Pope Francis to help us understand what it means to serve.

Sept. 2, 2015 | Huffington Post

September is Infant Mortality Awareness Month in the U.S with the goal of bringing attention to our relatively high Infant Mortality Rate (IMR), representing the estimated number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births.

According to the Center for Disease Control, "the IMR is often used as an indicator to measure the health and well-being of a nation, because factors affecting the health of entire populations can also affect infant mortality rates." The most recent data here in the U.S. shows that for every 1,000 babies born, six die during their first year.

While that seems like a relatively low number, the U.S. ranks 50th in the world in infant mortality. Compared to other developed nations, we fall behind many including most European countries, Japan, Canada, and Australia.

But the good news is that we now have a greater understanding of the main factors affecting fetal health, and we can address key risk factors such as obesity and pre-natal smoking. This number has been reduced over the last 60 years due to medical advances in pre- and post-natal care, and through education, we will continue to drive those numbers down.

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As we promote awareness here in the United States, we also want to hold up the issues of infant mortality in developing nations, where the IRM can be as high as 60 for every 1,000 live births. In many low-income countries, the average age of marriage for young women is 16, as in Ethiopia or Guatemala. And if these young women can delay their first pregnancy until 20-24, they are 10-14 times more likely to survive the complications of pregnancy and childbirth, than if they were pregnant in their late teens. And the child is twice is likely to survive the newborn stage if the mother can space her pregnancies just 3 years apart.

These young mothers need a spectrum of interventions including access to folic acid, prenatal care, nutrition, and skilled attendees during childbirth for themselves and the health of their newborn. We need to provide both education and the resources, including access to contraceptives, to help these women time and space their pregnancies, so that their families, too, can thrive.

In an increasingly globalized world, mothers in the United States have much more in common with moms around the world than we might realize. We all love our children and want them to flourish, and we all deeply mourn the loss of a child in any of our villages and communities. As we promote awareness here in the United States to combat infant mortality rates, let's also consider how we might advocate for women in developing nations to reduce infant mortality rates there as well.

Together, we can build a healthier, happier world for moms and children.

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

But who is a statistic? A statistic is a person, a mother, daughter, sister, an aunty. She is the nameless woman that gets added to the reports about the problems, the needs, and the gaps to be filled.

Aug. 19, 2015 | CNN

Kano State, Nigeria (CNN) Ahmadu Kanduwa's home is just two kilometers away from the local clinic in Nigeria's northern Sumaila district -- two kilometers from the vaccine that could have prevented his son, Isa, from contradicting polio more than a year ago. It's something Kanduwa thinks about often.

"I have this thought, if he had received say five or six doses, he would have been immune from this ailment," Kanduwa said.

He says Isa received two of the oral polio vaccinations. Painfully close to the four doses recommended for complete immunity.

In a district that now has an immunization rate of around 85%, officials hope Isa's will be Nigeria's last new case of polio. More than a year of being polio-free highlights how close the country is to a major milestone. But Isa's case also shows just how difficult polio can be to fully eradicate.

Standing outside of the clinic, Kulchumi Hammanyero from the World Health Organization smiles when she sees the line of mothers with babies in their laps and immunization cards in their hands, waiting patiently for the vaccine. But her smile is matched by a heavy dose of caution.

"When we see there is no more wild polio virus (WPV) and all indicators are showing us that we have covered the necessary ground, then we can say, ok, we have reached a certain point. But we are not out of the woods, not out of the woods at all," Hammanyero said.

Read the full article on CNN.

My colleagues and I have settled into a routine and I have been able to foster relationships that are built on honesty and trust. Trust to do things the way I know and honesty to discuss why certain practices are in place and how to best improve them.

Aug. 15, 2015 | Forbes

In the United States, our health system is far from perfect, but we like to pride ourselves on delivering the highest quality and newest innovations in care.  But one area where we lag behind even some African nations is in preventing cervical cancer – the most common gynecologic cancer worldwide.

In Rwanda for example, as breast and cervical cancer rates began to rise in 2010, Rwanda’s Minister of Health, Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, quickly responded by launching a national campaign to vaccinate schoolgirls against HPV—the human papilloma virus that causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Among eligible girls, vaccination rates of 93.2 percent and 96.6 percent were achieved in 2011 and 2012 according to the Rwanda Ministry of Health.

The move seems obvious: a proven-safe vaccine can snuff out a virus that we know causes deadly cancer. Yet what was accomplished in Rwanda is still desperately needed across parts of the world—and here at home.

An HPV viral infection causes cancer in over 400,000 women globally each year. In developing countries, a woman dies every two minutes from cervical cancer, with 230,000 lives lost annually.  In sub-Saharan Africa, it is the number one cancer-killer of women.

Screening programs, such as the Pap test, have been effective in industrialized countries at catching precancerous lesions before they develop into cancers—thus saving us from the alarming death rates. But a Pap test does nothing to clear the underlying viral infection and prevent cancerous cells from growing in the first place. And as a screening tool, it is hard to enforce in the developing world due to high costs and lack of patient follow-up.

Groups such as the public-private partnership Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon have been seeking to reduce cervical and breast cancer deaths in underdeveloped regions. Soon after Dr. Binagwaho launched the vaccination program in Rwanda, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon began working to vaccinate over 42,000 girls Zambia and Botswana and perform cervical cancer screening for over 180,000 women for cervical cancer in Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania.

Yet only thirty-five percent of American girls and young women receive the vaccination.

The current vaccine routinely used in the United States, Gardasil, can prevent up to seventy percent of new cases of cervical cancer, and is approved for children and young adults ages 9 to 26.  A newly developed European vaccine, effective against nine variants of HPV (the so-called “nine-valent” vaccination) hopes to improve on this further, with an estimated prevention rate of ninety percent. Gardasil has been available in the U.S. for nearly a decade and has been shown to be both safe as well as exceedingly effective. In Australia, for example, uptake rates are as high as 80%.

Why, then, is the U.S. so hesitant to accept a vaccine that could save hundreds of thousands of cancer diagnoses each year? The reasons include safety concerns propagated by the anti-vaccine movement and worries that a cervical cancer vaccination will increase promiscuity.

Neither argument is compelling. The vaccine has been shown to be exceedingly safe with minimal side effects, and is supported by the pediatrics community and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. It works so well at clearing viral infections that it has also been approved for boys as well, and can prevent penile and anal cancer caused by the same viral infection. The advent of the new 9-valent vaccine from Europe has the potential to truly cure this cancer and eradicate it—a first in human history. Fears of increased promiscuity are a strawman argument at best. The vaccine only addresses one sexually transmitted virus, and protecting women from HPV would in no way suggest other protections.

The U.S. shouldn’t take its access to this cure for granted; we must change our attitude and health practices here at home.

Various programs have been instituted to help in the uptake of the cervical cancer vaccine. The Vaccines for Children (VCF) program, for example, is a federally funded program that offers free vaccines for low-income families, including the Gardasil vaccine.  But we need to reach beyond the demographic targeted by VCF.

An educational approach including both schools and healthcare professionals should elucidate what the health benefits of the vaccination are, their indications for administration, and the proven safety data. The lack of education about the advantages of receiving the vaccine among healthcare providers remains one of the greatest barriers to increasing compliance rates.  Health care workers must be educated and trained to inform the young women in their care of the availability of a vaccination against HPV.

We also need increased coordination between our nation’s regulatory bodies, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as state and local health care agencies. The lack of harmonization in health-care policy among the states, further engenders misinformation and decreased vaccination rates. A coordinated national policy would alleviate these issues.  New York is in the process of passing legislation to offer the vaccine through the public school system, while Hawaii and Texas are attempting to  legislate an increase in HPV education vaccine awareness as a matter of policy. While these remain important and promising steps in the right direction, more work remains to be done.

In truth, the eradication of cervical cancer from the United States is low hanging fruit. We now have a cost effective, easy method of cancer prevention, and the time for excuses has come to an end. We must ensure that our young women have the chance to enter this century free from preventable diseases such as cervical cancer, so they can realize their maximum potential.

Read the original article on Forbes.

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