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World Health Day 2021: Building a fairer, healthier world

Every year on 7 April, the World Health Organization (WHO) marks World Health Day, a day of celebration to create awareness of a specific health theme to highlight one of their priority areas of concern.

To mark the occasion, we spoke to several academics from across the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies (WELS) to hear their thoughts on this year’s campaign theme of ‘Building a fairer, healthier world’ and find out how their own work is feeding into the WHO's call for global leaders to work together to tackle inequities in order to “build back fairer” post-pandemic.

Tackling health inequity

According to the WHO, COVID-19 has hit all countries hard, but its impact has been harshest on those communities which were already vulnerable, who are more exposed to the disease, less likely to have access to quality health care services, and more likely to experience adverse consequences as a result of measures implemented to contain the pandemic.

WELS Senior Lecturer in Health Promotion, Dr Jenny Douglas spoke to David Harewood about her research for the documentary, ‘Why is Covid Killing People of Colour’. During filming, Dr Douglas shared the shocking statistic that Black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than their white counterparts and that many of the women she has interviewed for her research felt their concerns were not listened to by health professionals:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on stark inequities in health and these inequities are particularly visible in relation to Black women in the UK. Since 2010, the MBRRACE Reports have reported the rise in maternal mortality amongst Black women; activists such as Tinuke and Clotilde, co-founders of FIVE X MORE, and Black journalists and documentary makers such as David Harewood have amplified the voices of the researchers at MBRRACE and brought this inequity in maternal health to the attention of the public, policymakers, and practitioners.

“The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has established a Race Equality Taskforce and are working with FIVE X MORE launching 5 steps for healthcare professionals, a campaign to reduce maternal health disparities in the UK. This demonstrates that health researchers, activists, journalists, policymakers, practitioners and all health professionals must work together to build a fairer and healthier world. We must all do better post-Covid.” – Dr Jenny Douglas, Senior Lecturer, Health Promotion

The recent BBC documentary investigated what the high Covid-19 death rates in Black and minority ethnic patients reveal about health inequality in modern Britain.


Gender and health

A person’s gender and/or gender identity also has a huge influence on their experience of and access to healthcare. According to the WHO, gender is hierarchical and produces inequalities that intersect with other social and economic inequalities:

“The way that health services are organized and provided can either limit or enable a person’s access to healthcare information, support and services, and the outcome of those encounters. Rigid gender norms negatively affect people with diverse gender identities, who often face violence, stigma and discrimination as a result, including in healthcare settings.” – WHO, Gender, Equity and Human Rights Team

Dr Naomi Holford, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies, specialises in research in the area of gender, sexuality and class in childhood and youth. In a recent OpenLearn article, ‘Supporting young trans people’s rights to health and happiness', Dr Holford explores the complexities of navigating healthcare as a young trans or non-binary person and highlights the need for better and more timely access to supportive, gender-affirming healthcare for gender-diverse young people:

Unfortunately, the healthcare and support available to young trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming children and young people in the UK is lacking. The rapidly increasing numbers of referrals to NHS Gender Identity Development Services (GIDS) mean that young people may wait two years for a first appointment after being referred. That often means going through puberty, causing greater distress as trans young people go through physical changes associated with their birth sex.

“Clearly, the current model of care for gender questioning young people in the UK where a single clinic provides services to a rapidly growing population is causing an inevitable bottleneck. Academic researchers and trans healthcare organisations have advocated for a more decentralised form of care, where GPs and CAMHS clinicians would receive training in the treatment of gender dysphoria.

“Receiving substandard healthcare is distressing. But equally important is the joy and freedom young people experience after finally receiving gender-affirming care.” – Dr Naomi Holford, Lecturer, Childhood and Youth Studies

The OU’s Integrating Care for Trans Adults (ICTA) project hopes to improve NHS health care for trans (including non-binary) adults by providing information on how to develop effective models for the health services needed to support trans adults before, during and after they are seen by NHS-commissioned specialist gender identity services.

The focus of the ICTA project is on effective integration of care – or how to make health care more ‘joined up’.


Acting beyond borders

Internationally, the OU’s ACCESS project (Approaches in Complex and Challenging Environments for Sustainable SRHR), led by WELS academic Dr Lesley Hoggart, is working towards ensuring that all people are able to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) by 2030, a task that requires progress on reaching the most under-served and marginalised populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an example which is having a devastating impact around the world, adding to the existing difficulties experienced by women and girls and marginalised populations, and weakening already fragile health systems.

“By working with diverse communities in diverse settings in Lebanon, Mozambique, Nepal and Uganda, the ACCESS consortium is working to co-design and test innovative solutions that enable the most marginalised and under-served people to access comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services.” – Dr Lesley Hoggart, ACCESS Academic Director

In the wake of the pandemic, as we look towards “building back better” it’s down to all of us to come together and fight for a fairer, healthier world for everyone, regardless of race, gender, disability, income or geographical location.

Find out more about our academics and their research:
Dr Jenny Douglas
Dr Naomi Holford
Dr Lesley Hoggart
ICTA Project
ACCESS Project

Further reading and World Health Day resources:
WHO: World Health Day 2021
WHO Webinar: An urgent call to work together to tackle health inequities
Health inequities and racial and ethnicity-based discrimination: What COVID 19 is teaching us
WHO Gender, Equity and Human Rights Team
PHE Blog: Taking place-based action to reduce health inequalities and build back better and fairer
Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review

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