By Ashleigh Mattern, CBC News Posted: Jan 14, 2018 8:31 AM
The Zika virus inspired Alana Cattapan’s research.
Cattapan had a trip planned to the Dominican Republic and people in her life told her she shouldn’t go because she’s in her 30s and it had been recommended that “women of childbearing age” avoid affected areas.
“This was strange to me because I was not pregnant, not planning on being pregnant, and the concerns were really about fetal health, not about women,” said Cattapan, who is an assistant professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
“I was really interested in how people were thinking about, not me, but a child that I hadn’t yet conceived and wasn’t interested in conceiving.”
Her research project called “Perpetually potentially pregnant” has been awarded a grant totalling $56,000 from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, and the U of S.
The goal is to change the interaction between health care providers and women of childbearing age; to challenge the assumption that women will get pregnant just because they are of a certain age.
For example, she spoke to one woman who said her doctor had been insisting she take folic acid daily in case she someday gets pregnant.
“Folic acid really is important for fetal health, but the doctor has never, ever identified any of the reasons it might be useful for her to take folic acid,” Cattapan said.
“The guidelines for women’s care focus more on the potential future fetus than it does sometimes on women’s health.”
Effects of drugs on women unknown
These assumptions can also lead to gaps in knowledge about the effectiveness of drugs for women. In clinical trials, when the effects of drugs are still unknown, women of childbearing age are sometimes left out of the trials.
“We don’t know a lot about the effects of certain drugs on women because they’ve only ever been tested on men.”
Men’s reproductive functions are also often left out of the discussions of health prior to conception, even though sperm can be affected by exposure to chemicals, pollutants, stress, and alcohol and drug use.
“We focus on women’s reproductive bodies, but we don’t talk about men, whose bodies are really important to reproduction.”
Part of her research will include developing tools for public health agencies that will educate them about the topic.
Overall, she wants to broaden the way health care is provided to women in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
“Women who are planning on being pregnant or women who are already pregnant have fetal health in mind. Women are interested in recommendations that will ensure that when they have babies, they will have healthy babies.
“But it’s important to remember that women in their 20s and 30s who are not planning on having children, or who are far from being ready to have children, shouldn’t be thought of as just reproductive subjects, and we need to pay more attention to that.”