More than 650 women gathered for the fourth annual Women’s Health Awareness Day (WHAD) at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham, North Carolina. WHAD provides a diverse group of women and families from across North Carolina with education, screenings, medical services, and other resources.
Individuals from NIEHS provided screenings, environmental health talks, and shared information on participating in clinical research at the institute. This year, participants hailed from 27 counties in the state. Speakers and participants alike voiced their hope that the event will continue to expand.
NIEHS co-sponsors WHAD as a way to get involved and give back to the community it serves, according to lead NIEHS organizer Joan Packenham, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Human Research Compliance. She worked with co-sponsors from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the NCCU Public Health Education Department.
Packenham emphasized that the event is a way for women to work together to address health challenges in their communities. Her comments were echoed by Monica Barnes from Delta Sigma Theta. “We can’t work in silos, we have to work together,” Barnes said. The message was underscored in the theme of the event, “Transforming Communities by Enhancing Women’s Health.”
Attendees received practical resources and guidance, as well as encouragement to become active in their communities to create change. “You have a call to action to look at where you work, live, play, and pray to figure out where you can make a difference,” Gayle Harris, director of the Durham County Department of Public Health (Durham DPH), told attendees.
Preparing for 21st century challenges
WHAD brought a variety of health resources to the local community. Local dignitaries (see sidebar) attended, including Rep. G.K. Butterfield, J.D., who talked with participants about health care needs.
Packenham and retired NIEHS scientist Jerry Heindel, Ph.D., led an education session to build understanding of how chemicals in the environment affect health.
NIEHS Clinical Director Janet Hall, M.D., provided reproductive health education, in a talk titled, “Health and Hormones From Adolescence to Menopause.”
Sharon Beard, from the NIEHS Worker Training Program, and Willa Robinson Allen, from Durham DPH, used humor to connect with women on ways to use technical savvy to get healthy.
“There’s a lot of opportunity out there to use technology to improve your health,” said Beard. Participants learned about mobile phone health apps to track everything from steps to blood sugar levels. They also learned how to use electronic health records to use telemedicine.
Allen provided tips and tricks for keeping active, such as using music players with ear buds to make walking more interesting, as well as smart TVs and gaming systems to create a gym at home.
In another session, Beard encouraged women to make a home emergency plan. “We’ve been seeing a lot more dangerous weather lately,” she said, “and we need to be prepared.” The session included a raffle, in which 15 women received ready-made emergency kits for their cars and homes.
For all ages and backgrounds
This year, WHAD reached out to teenage girls through a separate session with topics especially relevant to this age group, such as a yoga class and online dating safety.
According to Tamarra James-Todd, Ph.D., from Harvard University, many women and girls begin using personal care products as early as five years old, and these products could be having an effect on their health.
“Just because something is on the shelf doesn’t mean that it is safe for you,” she told a group of participants. Todd pointed out phthalates, parabens, and other potential endocrine disrupters to look out for in the ingredients list.
Heindel and Robert Sargis, M.D., Ph.D., a physician and researcher at the University of Illinois-Chicago, led a session on diabetes and environmental justice.
“Communities of color are at higher risk of developing diabetes, and at a higher risk of worse complications once they have the disease,” Sargis told the audience. He emphasized the importance of exercise, healthy diet, sleep, and community action to help lessen health disparities.
Many speakers, including NIEHS and National Toxicology Program (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and Packenham, emphasized that it takes a village to solve the health challenges faced by women and their families. They said that events like WHAD can educate and empower women to create change.
(Alicia Richards is a graduate student working in the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research Laboratory of Toxicology and Toxicokinetics, housed at NIEHS.)