Pinterest and Global Health

On September 11, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Karen Grepin

I try to keep up – or even ahead – with trends in technology and social media. I own almost every product Apple has ever made, including a Mac laptop that dates before the MacBook (and that still works by the way). I’ve been on Facebook for almost 6 years, blogging for over 4 years, and on Twitter for almost the same amount of time. Although I sometimes need my 2 year old son to turn on the TV for me, I might appear technologically savvy…to some people.

So when I started hearing the buzz about another social media platform – Pinterest – I tried to figure what it was all about. I really tried, but honestly, I didn’t get it. But this summer, while on maternity leave, I gave it another try. It turns out perusing pictures of the cutest dresses and most beautiful recipes at 3 in the morning is exactly what my baby brain was looking for. So I guess I can now say that I am officially on Pinterest.

In the back of my head, though, I have been trying hard to figure out how to use this with my work as I do with Twitter and other forms of social media. Advocacy immediately jumped to mind, but despite my searches (by the way, I think the Pinterest search engines are terrible) I have not actually found much global health advocacy efforts on Pinterest yet.

Global Health Media guru Jaclyn Schiff alerted me this morning to one organization that is giving it a go. UNICEF has recently launched a ficitional profile of a young girl from Sierra Leone, Ami Musa, who has been putting things on her board of things she really wants. So while I am lusting over the new non-traditional Ramen shop in Carroll Gardens, she is lusting over clean water and a bowl of rice for dinner. A bit of badvocacy, perhaps, but perhaps this might prove to be a useful medium for many social causes to get the message out.

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Take some quinine…with a side of green eggs and ham

On August 21, 2012, in history, malaria, by Karen Grepin

While Dr. Seuss may not have been a medical doctor, he did seem to have some interest in public health. The NPR’s Health Blog yesterday featured this health education poster illustrated by none other than Dr. Seuss while he was serving in World War II. The protagonist in his illustrations is a little mosquito named Ann (short for anopheles).

More great illustrations from the good doctor can also be found on the Contagion blog here.

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A Health Systems Research Bleg

On August 16, 2012, in health services, health systems, by Karen Grepin

Given that you are reading this post, there is a reasonable possibility that you might in fact be someone who engages in the field that is broadly defined as “Health Systems Research”. If that is the case, please read on.

If I were to ask you to list for me what you think are the best examples of research papers, projects or reports on health systems research, what would you say? If you do have an answer for this question, please (pretty please), email them to me at projects.karengrepin at

Yes, this is for research purposes. Yes, I will be forever grateful.

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When Imodium is the Enemy

On August 16, 2012, in child mortality, diarrhea, by Karen Grepin

It turns out that I am a much more adventurous eater than my Newfoundland gastrointestinal heritage has equipped me to be. This predicament has gotten me into a bit of trouble in the past: a much slower than originally anticipated hike through the Dogon Country, the *very* long flight back from Addis via Cairo, and my glamorous tour of gas stations in Togo and Eastern Ghana. You’d think I would know better than to eat raw meat in one of the countries with the lowest rankings on the human development index?? Apparently not. This problem has, however, forced me to develop a pantomime which has proven nearly universally effective to purchase Imodium in nearly a dozen of different countries. Imodium is my Friend.

But in the context of global health, Imodium is actually the Enemy. Diarrhea is the second most important killer of children under the age of five. The challenges of addressing this issue are complex:

1. Diarrhea is a common ailment that affects the vast majority of children on a regular basis so new cases rarely send parents rushing their kids off to the doctor. It is a fact of life in most developing countries.
2. Most cases are self regulating so if a parent does not treat or incorrectly treats their kid, this health seeking behavior is usually reinforced.
3. Most treatment is done at home so few cases are properly diagnosed and seeking advice from a medical professional is rare.
4. And finally, there are many cheap, readily available treatments.

While at first glance, this last challenge might not seem to be a bad thing, in the context of diarrhea it can be just that. There are many potential treatments being peddled for the treatment of diarrhea – from my trusty loperamide to the omnipresent antibiotics to my mother-in-law’s favorite: rice. When a child gets sick with a severe case of diarrhea, the World Health Organization and other agencies endorse the use of one treatment: oral rehydration therapy in combination with zinc. Some experts have list this intervention among the most cost-effective health interventions available yet I am sure many of you had not even heard about it. And the proportion of children with cases of diarrhea who are actually treated with this combination is abysmally low.

A new blog post by Oliver Sabot from the Clinton Foundations’ Health Access Initiative highlights how challenging this task can be in India, the country with the largest burden of diarrhea in the world. He writes on a the PLoS medicine blog this week:

Children are being treated for diarrhea, but they are just getting the wrong drugs. In most cases, the antibiotics and anti-diarrheal drugs that are the typical response to childhood diarrhea in India (given to roughly 60% of children with diarrhea) are at best useless and at worst actively harmful in most cases. Drugs like Loperamide work by paralyzing parts of the gastrointestinal tract, stopping everything – good or bad – from flowing out. For young children, this effect can be deadly: the drug was actively discouraged for use in children after six Pakistani children died in 1990 and a recent analysis found the drug caused severe side effects or death in around one percent of children. Yet mothers – and most health providers – here are not aware of these threats; they see only that the diarrhea decreases as they hoped and so drugs like these continue to do good business across India while less than two percent of children receive the recommended combination of zinc and ORS.

So how do we change this situation? I know Oliver and others (myself as well) have been working on developing some research projects that are aimed at trying to answer these questions. There are likely lessons to be learned from the recent experiences in trying to scale up the use of ACTs for the treatment of malaria (luckily Oliver was a big player in that process as well) but the challenges for diarrhea are also likely unique to this disease. But solving these questions has to be a much bigger priority if the world does actually hope to reduce child mortality in the developing world.

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A mangled mess

On August 13, 2012, in surgery, by Karen Grepin

I consider myself a relatively healthy person. But when I fill in a medical history form that asks for me to list all of my previous surgeries, I start to look a little worse for wear: shave biopsy left shoulder 2012, caesarean section 2012, punch biopsies to hand and right calf 2010, caesarean section 2010, lumpectomy 2009, LEEP 2005, Bankart repair to right shoulder 2004, and finally another Bankart to right shoulder 1997. I am healthy today, but only because of the way I have been cut, stitched, and singed back together by doctors with surgical training.

Until recently there has been little attention given to the need for surgical health services in low income countries. Many people consider it “too expensive” or “unnecessary” for poor people in poor countries. I think it is more than this: it is “unknown”. We have very poor information on what the need for such services might be in these settings. Health surveys, such as the DHS, mainly collect information on the health of children and women as they pertain to the rearing of children. It is hard to understand what the burden of diseases that are amendable to surgery might be in these settings. The prevalence of such conditions is unknown.

So a couple of years ago, some folks I met via Twitter (where else?) came up with the idea of developing a survey that would help shed light on the prevalence of such conditions. Their criteria was that the survey needed to provide population based estimates of a set of common conditions amenable to surgery and must be done in such a way that it could be collected quickly and inexpensively. Working with other expert they developed SOSAS: Surgeons OverSeas Assessment of Surgical Need.

On a shoe-string budget of $35K, they set out to test their survey instrument in Sierra Leone. I can tell you $35K for any substantial survey is really cheap. With it they surveyed a nationally representative sample of roughly 2000 households. Their findings are published in this week’s Lancet.

Briefly, they found that nearly a quarter of respondents had a condition that they self-identified as something that could be treated by surgery. In addition, a quarter of the reported recent deaths among household members might have been averted had surgical services been made available. This strikes me as a lot – a true mangled mess – but of course until this survey is repeated in other settings, it is hard to make a comparison to other contexts. Regardless, it seems that expanding access to surgical health services even in one of the poorest countries in the world would likely go a long way to help improve population health. All the kings horses and all the kings men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again, but perhaps all they really needed was 1 good surgeon?

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I have been in the United States now for almost a decade and have yet to eat at a Cheesecake Factory. I would like to say that the reason for this is that I have high culinary standards (no self respecting foodie would do that, right?) but in fact, it is not. My husband and I once decided to go after a day of shopping at the Prudential Center in Boston but after finding out that the wait was 1-2 hours, we opted for our favorite South End seafood joint instead. But I have always wondered whether the food and the experience really worth the wait?

Not only does Atul Gawande eat there but he somehow manages to turn an ordinary dinner out with his kids into one of the best written pieces I have read recently on what is wrong with the US health care situation (most of my dinners out with the kids these days ends up with someone vomiting or someone crying). His argument is simple, what makes the cheesecake factor so successful – scale, standardization, and a focus on process – can, and should, also be applied to the health care industry. I once attended an interesting talk by Michael Porter (the 5 forces guy) on the health care industry in which he described the health care industry as the worlds’ largest cottage industry – every hospital and every physician practice working independently and on their own.

This description has always stuck with me as it seemed so perfect. But Gawande argues that this does not have to be the case. If we were all more willing to allow the hospitals to operate more like chains we might be able to get better results (i.e. miso crusted tuna) at a lower price (all for under $15, well plus a few extra bucks for the cheesecake, of course).

Perhaps this might be fine for the high income countries, but might this also be applied to health care in low income countries? It seems that there is already at least a few cases out there where this has happened. The Aravind Eye Hospital is perhaps one of the best known chains out there in global health. It has become famous for churning out high quality and low cost eye surgeries across the developing world. There is reasons to believe that these models can work everywhere. McDonalds has more or less shown this to be true, right?

Yet while Gawande makes the connection between the rise of chains in medicine in better care and lower costs, he also makes the important point that the connection between these changes and outcomes still has not been proven.

Yet it seems strange to pin our hopes on chains. We have no guarantee that Big Medicine will serve the social good. Whatever the industry, an increase in size and control creates the conditions for monopoly, which could do the opposite of what we want: suppress innovation and drive up costs over time. In the past, certainly, health-care systems that pursued size and market power were better at raising prices than at lowering them.

Part of the challenge will be reluctance from both providers and of patients to accept such changes (can we start calling health care snobs healties?). Would you want to have your eyes fixed at the Cheesecake Factory? We’ll if the benefits of such improvements are as good as people say, perhaps we might have people lining up for that too.

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My AIDS at 30 Reading List

On July 16, 2012, in books, history, HIV/AIDS, by Karen Grepin

One way or another, July is going to be a very important month in the unfolding history of the global HIV epidemic. It has now been 30 years since the HIV epidemic “officially” began. Later this month, the International AIDS Society will host its biannual meeting in Washington, DC – a very significant venue location. Tens of thousands of scientists, advocates, and program managers will descend on the capital of the world’s largest AIDS donor. While there are unlikely to be any major scientific breakthroughs announced at the upcoming conference, it will still be notable on the advocacy front due to what is at stake: the sustainability and continued expansion of a decade’s worth of donor supported AIDS programs in low income countries.

When people think about books about HIV, many will mention “And the Band Played On”, but that books is now 25 years old (into a 30 year epidemic). I think it is time for an updated reading list. It turns out; I am not the only one. Or at least that is what a number of publishers are hoping for with the release of a number of books marking the 30 anniversary of the epidemic. A number of these books have made it onto my reading list this year. So far I have managed to make it through 2.5 of the 5 books and hope to finish the rest soon. Here is my list:

Among the books I have read (fully or in part):

No Time to Lose (by Peter Piot): After leading UNAIDS for over a decade, Peter Piot spent time at the Ford Foundation reflecting upon his experiences. This book, a biographical account of his involvement in launching the global response to the HIV epidemic, is the result. I don’t know him personally, but I have seen him speak on a number of occasions. In person, I have never found Peter Piot to be particularly inspirational – I always found his style to be aggressive and he always seemed angry – but I very much enjoyed this book which described Piot’s role in the discovery of not one, but two viruses (HIV and Ebola), and the story about how a doctor and virologist from a country with little international clout (Belgium) come to lead the the UN political and bureaucratic machine against HIV. The title well describes his own mindset and perhaps explains some of the choices that he made over the years. The book introduces many of the key players in the response and how each became involved. The early chapters, I thought, were particularly interesting and detailed, describing the path that took Piot to Zaire and his involvement in the field there and throughout Africa. The latter chapters, however, seemed a little rushed and a little light (e.g. I thought the premature and violent death of Jonathan Mann, a close friend and important player in the response to the epidemic warranted a bit more than a paragraph of mention). I would have also liked a bit more thoughts on what is next for the epidemic, but overall, a highly recommended read.

The Origin of AIDS (by Jacque Pepin – no not the chef, another one): By now, it is more or less well established that the HIV virus crossed over from chimpanzees to humans at some point during the past century or so, likely in Central Africa. From there it spread across the world and infected tens of millions of people. But why did the virus spread when it did and how did is transmit to quickly? This book explores these questions and postulates some answers. The central argument that this book takes is that colonial policies and practices, in particular in Central Africa half a decade ago, are to blame. For example, Pepin argues that the migration of male, but not female, workers to capital cities to work in colonial industries generated high male to female ratios which promoted another industry: prostitution. Also, rural campaigns, whether well intentioned or not, to tackle a number of tropical diseases, led to countless inoculations and injections with unclean needles and syringes in exactly the areas where the virus was likely transmitting at low levels among rural populations. The efficient spread of the virus via contaminated blood amplified the virus in the population and led it to spread at a rapid pace. In addition, the treatment of sexually transmitted infections, in particular among the newly employed prostitutes, may have also effectively transmitted the disease. In essence, these forces lead to the rapid spread of the virus into new populations in ways that it allowed it to propagate quickly within and outside of Central Africa. Finally, the author also argues that if it was colonial practices that lead to the spread of the disease, then the now wealthier countries in the world also have an obligation to address it. This was a well-written book throughout and an entertaining read.

Republic of Therapy (Vinh-Kim Nguyen): This books makes it onto my list, even though it was published 2 years ago, because I am only now getting around to reading it. The first night I ever spent in Africa, over a decade ago, was on the patio of the house Vinh-Kim was renting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso while he was conducting research, some of which ended up in this book. Nguyen describes the advent of advocacy in Sub-Saharan Africa during the introduction of antiretroviral therapy in the region. He tells how Western forms of advocacy and the need for people to identify people living with HIV lead to systems that allowed outsiders to decide who lived and who died and effectively created a new form of sovereignty with outsiders holding power over the HIV infected citizens. Given how important advocacy and social movements have been in shaping the HIV epidemic you would think that there would be many good investigations of these forces, but from my perspective so much of the analysis has been on the scientific and political contributions, and this is one good exception. This book is much more academic than some of the other books on this reading list but if you are up for it, than it is a worthwhile read.

Now on to the books I have not yet read:

Tinderbox (Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin): Similar to the Origin of AIDS, this book focuses on the reasons for the spread of the virus outside of Central Africa. I know Daniel and he is always entertaining so I suspect this book is as well, although I am not sure exactly what angle this book takes over Pepin’s book. Daniel also gets my vote for the global health expert I would most like to see on Twitter.

AIDS at 30 (Victoria Harden): Written by a historian from the NIH, this books looks at the medical history of the epidemic, including the faith that has been put into vaccines over the years. Looks like an interesting complement to the other books.

So what did I miss? What are you reading this year?

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With news this week (here, here, and here) that the US Government’s Global Health Initiative is being, shall we say, reorganized (closed?) many people seemed confused about the future of the US governments’s strategy on global health. It might therefore be a good time to spend some time thinking about what has come from this initiative over the years. Without a question the most visible and likely most success part of this program has been the PEPFAR program. It is therefore very timely that tomorrow, Health Affairs, the “Bible of Health Policy“, will release a themed issue that looks at the “achievements and future prospects” for the program.

I’ll be blogging more on it later this week once the journal is out (I am the author of one of the pieces in this issue) but I wanted to let you know that there will be a special briefing to disseminate the findings of this theme this week in Washington, DC. There is likely to be air conditioning at the Hyatt, so if you are in town, you might want to sign up to attend (and make sure you say hi, I’ll be the one carrying around a 7 week old). If not, there is going to be a live webcast of the event. More details on the event and an RSVP link can be found here.

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Keeping up with global health journals

On July 5, 2012, in articles, education, by Karen Grepin

I frequently get asked, and myself wonder: what are the top journals in global health? This is kind of a complicated question to answer since of course “global health” is by nature a multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary field. As a result, you will frequently see really important papers being published in journals that might not obviously be home for such works. As well, due to the rise in this field over the past few years, we have actually seen the establishment of new journals that have attempted to fill gaps in this complicated academic field.

Andrew Harmer, who blogs at, has compiled a list of what he believes to be the top academic journals in this space along with additional information each journal, including their impact factors. I mostly agree with this list – it covers nearly all of the journals I read regularly.

To help others keep up with this literature, the Global Health Hub, a very useful online aggregator of all that is going on in the field of global health, has also recently compiled an RSS feed that aggregates the feed from many of these journals. By subscribing to the feed, you can then follow along and keep up to date with these relevant journals.

Many top journals also now have Twitter accounts, so I also tend to follow many of these accounts, including the Lancet, Health Affairs, Global Health Governance, and others. I find it is also a useful way to keep up with the articles as well as other important pieces of information, such as calls for papers.

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No excuses

On July 2, 2012, in Uncategorized, by Karen Grepin

As you might have observed, blogging has been low on my list of priorities for the past few months. Since I also hate those “I have been very busy” blog posts, I’ve decided not to make any excuses for my absence from cyberspace. Instead, I have decided to adopt a different tactic: I am going brag about the wonderful things that have been keeping me away from my computer.

The most wonderful thing that has happened, and the one that I am sure you can all agree I have a right to brag about, is the arrival of my second little boy – Adrien Jules Grépin – who was born just over 6 weeks ago in New York City. Like my older boy, who turned 2 just a few weeks before his little brother’s entrance into the world, he has been an easy going baby but one who has not yet figured out how to sleep more than about 4 hours in a row. Both of them have been keeping me on the go – day and night, especially between 5-8 a.m. – but a happy mom.

Luckily, Adrien held off long enough for me to finish teaching another great semester of international health economics at NYU – a course I enjoy teaching more and more each year. I have also been fortunate enough to be working on some projects that are currently launching in Kenya to evaluate the impact of mHealth technologies on health care utilization and health care savings behavior of pregnant women. I also manage to get a few projects that have been in the works for a while wrapped up, so that I can now enjoy my maternity leave a bit.

But as the exhaustion begins to fade, and my baby-brain and c-section scar continue to heal (admittedly, it took me almost a minute today to come up with the name Burundi) I have been trying to get back into work and into what has been going on in the world of global health. While I was away, I missed blogging about a lot of important issues, including the whole Millennium Villages Debacle, the launch of a new US government funded initiative to reduce maternal mortality, and the election of Jim Kim to the head of the World Bank. Fortunately, I am sure that a lot more good stuff on its way soon. Hopefully my brag worthy life events will allow me some time to write about them again.

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