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  • Women’s Health, from Italy to New York

    by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

    Was there a doctor in the house? Si, certo! Naturalmente! Molti, molti. They had come from major medical research centers in Italy and New York, and these were just the panelists. The occasion was “Women’s Health in the Third Millennium,” a comprehensive three-day international conference, called into being by the remarkably energetic, gracious, not-to-be-denied-if-she-asks-you-to-participate Matilda Raffa Cuomo, former First Lady of New York State, Founder and Chairperson of Mentoring USA and Honorary Chairperson of Mentoring USA-Italia.

    In addition to the stellar keynoters, including the Consul General of Italy in New York, Giorgio Radicati, the Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, and, dignitaries from the sponsoring organizations—the New York Academy of Medicine and the Italian Ministry of Health—there were representatives from research centers in the U.S. and Italy focusing and collaborating on treating and preventing cancer, specifically breast cancer.

    Aside from the obvious importance of the Conference (women outlive men on average by 7-10 years but are in poorer health, noted Vittorio Daniore, Chief of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brescia) the subject resonates personally for Mrs. Cuomo, who told Education Update that she has lost “23 family members and friends to cancer.” She believes the battle is best advanced through “networking and the sharing” of research, “the kind much in evidence at the Conference.”

    She was excited about the heavy-hitter turnout. “Do you know that Umberto Veronesi is here?” she asks ecstatically. “He’s my hero.” Indeed, the Italian Minister of Health, who pioneered lumpectomies, would soon demonstrate why. His session on “The Prevention, Early Detection and Treatment of Malignancies Affecting Women” was a model of persuasive discourse as he moved confidently but carefully from slide to slide, analyzing the latest findings on nonradical treatments for breast cancer, such as lobectomy, lumpectomy and radiotherapy, and on the preventative use of Tamoxifen.

    “Women’s Health in the Third Millennium” is part of a plan for broad, bilateral scientific and technological cooperation that began some years ago between the governments of Italy and the U.S. Focusing on women’s health issues was inevitable, no doubt, considering the growing number of women succumbing to cancer and infectious diseases worldwide, and partnering with Italy is understandable, in light of the grim fact that Italy ranks number three in the western world for cases of HIV-AIDS, which now affects more women than men.

    As Jeremiah Barondess, President of the New York Academy of Medicine, remarked, women’s health “has finally achieved its right profile,” going beyond biological trials to include the study of social and economic factors that influence treatment and care. He emphasized the two-fold mission of the Academy, to serve the needs of underserved populations, most of whom live in inner cities, and to promote not just the scientific side of medicine but clinical care. It was with this mission in mind that the Academy co-sponsored this Conference. Consul General Radicati noted that American-Italian cooperation in medicine goes back 100 years, a theme taken up by Frank Guarini, Chairman of the National Italian American Foundation, who invoked the image of la vetrina, the window that looks out on the future. That future would be better health care for women. In the past, he noted, women’s issues tended to be ignored and women not included in research studies.

    Donna Shalala, who provided welcoming remarks, extolled Italians as trend-setters, not just in fashion but in health care. More, of course, must be done, especially for older women. While women are indeed anxious about osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, heart and lung disease, “the number one topic” they want to know more about is menopause, which was specifically addressed in a session led by Dr. M.L. Brandi from Florence.

    Questions remain, of course: How to get new information on early detection of breast cancer to those vast numbers of underserved women in the inner cities, and how to convince governments to increase their support for women’s health care in general. Still, the Conference was impressive in demonstrating the benefits all-around of major scientific and medical cooperation. #

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