By Noeli Vasquez & Salome Araya, Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP), Evidence and Implementation Team, Global Health Workgroup
Climate change threatens all maternal and child health (MCH) programs across the globe. AMCHP and our partners must analyze how we got to the crisis point and discover how to mitigate against the challenges. AMCHP’s Global Health Initiative held a webinar in November, titled “The Intersection of Climate Change and Maternal and Child Health: Centering Global Issues and Climate Justice.” The following speakers gave presentations:
- Jyotsna Krishnakumar, Ph.D., Director, Community Well Being Programme: WASH at Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, India
- Camille Delgado-Lopez, Epidemiologist, Surveillance for Emerging Threats to Mothers and Babies at the Children with Special Medical Needs Division, Puerto Rico Health Department
- Jack DiMatteo, Legislative Assistant for U.S. Congresswoman, Representative Lauren Underwood (IL), Black Maternal Health Caucus.
The objective of the webinar was to explore successful global and local efforts that are working to combat the greatest challenges facing maternal and child health at the intersection of climate change. This knowledge can motivate us to consider what we can do about these issues within our communities.
From policy making to youth activism, the webinar discussion looks at the innovative practices of people and groups around the world working to solve the biggest issue of our lifetime. Set out below is a snapshot of the Q&A session of the webinar. To learn more about climate change in MCH populations globally and domestically, you may watch a recording of the webinar here.
Question: What got you interested in this particular section (climate change) of MCH?
Dr. Jyoti: My expertise is not in MCH, but [MCH] is an important part of our larger program and community well-being. As I mentioned in my presentation, we had done a very extensive survey to get a sense of the health issues we are seeing among the community. Through our observations and through our interactions, we do know that health is a big issue among the indigenous communities here…. The survey told us, from the point of view of maternal and child health, the indicators were not looking very good. From a preventive point of view, we really wanted to address a lot of these issues around maternal and child health. And this whole new topic about the intersection of climate change and maternal child health was sort of new to us as well. That’s what brought me here. [I’m] not really [here] to share my expertise because I don’t really have [the] expertise, but [I’m here] to share some stories from this side of the world.
Camille: I just wanted to share our story. In every aspect of preparedness, maternal and child health is included in the process. As an epidemiologist, the importance of the data is to collect quality data and use the data for action and policy to ensure that this [MCH] population is being taken care of even before anything happens.
Jack: This issue of maternal health broadly was motivated not just by a general notion that the United States is experiencing a crisis but the personal experiences [Congresswoman Underwood] had with the issue. [We know that her personal experiences] are all too common for people across the country. Then, this focus on the intersection of maternal health and climate change and air pollution, and extreme heat-related issues was in some ways inspired by that article [refers to the Journal of American Medical Association, “Association of Air Pollution and Heat Exposure With Preterm Birth, Low Birth Weight, and Stillbirth in the USA Systematic Review,” 2020]. But we know that article just confirmed what people have actually been going through in their lives, which the Congresswoman heard about. For example, when she was working in Flint, on the water crisis… I think that was the motivation for her.
Question: To Camille, what were some of the early warning signs or patterns that you might have noticed and first alerted you to the actual intersection of the impact of climate change and maternal and child health?
Camille: For me, the most tragic manifestation of climate change was after the hurricanes and how [it resulted in] the destruction of health care. As I said, only three hospitals were open right after the hurricane and almost one week after, only 25 of the almost 80 hospitals were open. If that was the status of hospitals, imagine the [even worse] status of private [medical] offices or those specialists that people go to. That was the destruction of health care.
Question: Dr. Jyoti, you mentioned the importance of community autonomy or community leadership and having the decision-making role within environmental governance. I wanted you to speak more about that, and what it means to have autonomy in this area, and how it affects well-being in maternal and child health populations or any population?
Dr. Jyoti: That was in relation to our work with indigenous communities. Because of various socio-political issues, a lot of times these communities are being separated from their land. People are still in the process of claiming their rights. I think the way we want to address this issue is by not only just facilitating these rights for the communities but also to develop capacities within the communities to be able to assert their rights and collectively ask for their rights. They are struggling to receive it so that suggests the kind of vulnerability and marginalization that these communities face, and these communities are very small in number, scattered, and very culturally different. Our effort has been to develop capacities among these communities, identify leadership, and sort of nurture those leaderships, and thus support a lot of the advocacy work. The point of all of this is that only if [they] have access to the land will [they] have access to the resources that are in the forest and that has direct implications on their health as well.
Question: What suggestions do you have for folks attending this webinar who would like to take action to address climate change but work at organizations where the political climates are not receptive to that? What do you hope the attendees will take away with them today?
Jack: The final takeaway is just this recognition that none [of what we are talking about] is abstract. The U.S. maternal health crisis is not a bunch of abstract statistics. Climate change and climate justice are not abstract concepts. These are actually people’s lives [that are] impacted every day, and the sense of urgency is great, and the need is significant. We need interventions that meet the scale of the problem.
Camille: Maybe it’s a little bit on the epidemiology side, but my suggestion would be to document in detail the problem, its effect, [and] take that, along with ideas on how to manage [the problem]. If you’re thinking about preparedness, you can take examples of other places that have experienced the impact of climate change and take [the information] to your stakeholders or personnel within your organization [who] can help make that change.
Dr. Jyoti: As Jack was saying, climate change is not an abstract concept—it’s a real thing that’s really affecting people’s lives every day. One way of addressing it would be to document a lot of these stories. Stories can be very compelling, and there are real stories affecting real people in real life. First-hand experiences and narratives that you hear from across the world can be a very powerful tool to influence people and bring people to the side of the conversation.
This event is the second of an ongoing webinar series by the AMCHP Global Health Workgroup, which aims to identify and share culturally appropriate best practices, bright spots, and insights from the global community with Title V and its partners. With each subsequent webinar, we hope to build on the knowledge from previous events and serve as a space for learning for all those interested in how climate change may continue to impact mothers and children everywhere.
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