From left to right: Nancy Brown; Kathy Vizas; Sally G. Cowal; Suleika Jaouad; Dr. Mark Craeger; Dr. Gustavo Gonzalez-Canali

As the United Nations hosted a Sustainable Development Goals summit in New York City this week, a group gathered nearby to urge the world to focus on women’s health.

“We must continue to sound the alarm,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association and moderator of Friday evening’s program, “Women & The New Sustainable Development Goals – Why Non-communicable Diseases Matter.”

Currently, 38 million people live with noncommunicable diseases – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease chief among them – and the number is expected to grow.

“Women are uniquely affected by non-communicable diseases as patients, mothers and caregivers,” said Brown. “Helping women address non-communicable diseases can improve not only their health, but the health of their children, husbands, brothers, fathers and entire communities.”

zambiafirstladyEsther Lungu, first lady of The Republic of Zambia, delivered the keynote address of the event, presented by the Taskforce on Women and Non-Communicable Diseases, chaired by the American Heart Association and Population Services International.

She said that cervical cancer is a crisis in her country, but more women are getting screened for the disease due to a cooperative effort from such entities as chieftainesses, headmen, marriage counselors and politically active groups.

“The earlier you go, the better,” said Lungu, who also works with a coalition of African first ladies. “We need to secure the lives of women. I don’t mean to leave men out, but without women, none of us would be here.”

Kathy Vizas, a lawyer and founding member of Maverick Collection and PSI, provides cervical cancer screenings in India and she pointed out the need to measure results of the screenings.

“We need to be able to collect the data in real time; and be making programmatic changes in two months rather than two year,” said Vizas, pointing out that care is often inequitable.

“In many cases, we have the treatments, but not everyone has access to them. That’s a justice issue, when we have a solution, but aren’t implementing it,” she said.

Brown congratulated panelist Dr. Gustavo Gonzalez-Canali, senior advisor at the U.N. Coordination Division in U.N. Women, on the success of having a stand-alone U.N. Sustainable Development Goal focus on women and their health.

Gonzalez-Canali said it’s essential to take care of those who are suffering. He added that creating a culture of health is important – even if it means that consumers pay more for unhealthy products like tobacco or saturated fats.

Suleika Jaouad, author of the “Life, Interrupted” column in the New York Times, stressed the need to stay focused on patient care. Diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 22, she found herself feeling isolated – hers was largely a man’s disease; most of the other patients were older; and her peers’ lives of dating and going to parties had become foreign to her.

But she sees a lot of ways to share information and get young people involved in improving the health of women worldwide.

“We live in an amazing time,” Jaouad said. “Anyone can be an author, people can advocate, they can connect, they can organize. We have the tools, and we can connect through communities like this.”

The next step for the taskforce is to develop an action plan, Brown said after the event ended.

“We can be a strong voice to all countries. We need to reframe the issue – women are the core of the health of the whole community,” she said.