The Cayman Islands is among the world leaders when it comes to women’s health in some measures, according to Dr. Irene Jillson of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., but the territory seriously lags in others.
Dr. Jillson, an assistant professor, noted in a lecture hosted by the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Cayman, that Caymanian women live 83.8 years on average – more than a decade longer than the global average.
But as other data presented by Dr. Jillson suggests, Cayman still has a long way to go in improving the quality of women’s lives, especially when it comes to the health of adolescent girls.
“Girls are being bullied, there’s some kind of physical violence towards them, they’re drinking,” Dr. Jillson said. “There are all kinds of things here that are happening … [that are] not being addressed.”
Dr. Jillson, who has taught courses in global health systems and research and has conducted extensive policy research in Latin America, the Caribbean and in other parts of the world, discussed global health indicators – health statistics – and contrasted those with data about health in the Cayman Islands during Monday’s lecture.
“Your health indicators are actually much better, the key indicators are much better, than those globally,” Dr. Jillson said, although she noted that the rate of diabetes in the Cayman Islands is much higher than regional and global rates.
While maternal health, reproductive health and HIV are three of the top 10 issues in women’s health that many countries struggle with, maternal mortality, infant mortality and the HIV rates are all quite low in Cayman, she said. She also praised Cayman’s vaccination policy.
Narrowing her focus to adolescent health, however, Dr. Jillson found some data on youth in the Cayman Islands “very disturbing.”
She was surprised, for instance, at the numbers she found relating to how much boys and girls under the age of 18 are drinking.
She cited a 2007 study by the World Health Organization in collaboration with the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control, which surveyed more than 1,000 students in the Cayman Islands. Twenty-seven percent of boys and 27.9 percent of girls ages 13 to 15 reported that they had drunk so much alcohol that they were really drunk at least once in their life.
“This is disturbing because I know these data from many countries,” Dr. Jillson said. “Globally, there are usually rather significant differences between boys and girls.”
Dr. Jillson also noted the high number of girls who reported being bullied or physically attacked. But she said she was especially “stunned” by the number of girls who reported that they had contemplated suicide. In the same World Health Organization survey, 25.5 percent of female respondents compared to 13.2 percent of male respondents reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the past 12 months.
“This actually made me teary-eyed,” Dr. Jillson said.
According to more recent studies, like the Adolescent Health and Sexuality survey conducted in the Cayman Islands in 2012, the number of students contemplating suicide is even higher than the figures quoted during Dr. Jillson’s lecture. That survey found that 30.7 percent of girls and 14.2 percent of boys had contemplated suicide within the past 30 days.
Other data in the 2012 study was not broken down by gender, and Dr. Jillson said she is “concerned about the tone of at least some of [that] report.”
The quality and availability of health data in the Cayman Islands was another area of focus for Dr. Jillson’s lecture.
“In reading the data from Cayman, I was really concerned,” Dr. Jillson said. “I really think you need to push for accurate, up-to-date, decision-relevant data. What do I mean by decision-relevant data? I can find almost no disaggregation in your data and what we know is that the clearer the data, the better you’re able to make the decisions about targeted programs or actions.”
She said it was difficult for her to find any data about cancer or death rates by condition, and that available data on drug abuse lacked “specificity and clarity.”
She also said that Cayman’s National Health Policy and Strategic Plan is “very general.”
“Let me just tell you the words that are not in that document,” Dr. Jillson said. “Women, gender, adolescence, alcohol, drug abuse, STDs – I could find almost nothing about STDs, which is disturbing, because let me tell you, when you have high levels of kids engaging in binge drinking, you have STDs.”
She encouraged members of the Business and Professional Women’s Club to play a key role in constructing the next strategic health plan, and to encourage policymakers to focus on getting more and better data.
BPW President Andrea Williams said, “We learned so much from Dr. Jillson and we hope to take what we’ve learned and make a difference in these issues affecting women’s health in the Cayman Islands.”
Susan Watling, who attended the lecture and who serves on the Health Committee of BPW, said Dr. Jillson’s words are “triggering so much creativity already,” as members were already circulating emails on Monday afternoon about ways to address some of the health and data issues discussed.
“Dr. Jillson came in at a very good time because she’s an igniter for all of us in terms of making the next steps to improve health and wellness better in the Cayman Islands,” Ms. Watling said.
Dr. Jillson teaches in the School of Nursing and Health Studies, the School of Medicine and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.