The Women’s Health Matters Forum & Expo 2008 was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Jan. 18-19. Hosted by the New Women’s College Hospital and sponsored by GM Canada, the Toronto Star and others, the event offered 40 seminars and was attended by 150 exhibitors with the theme of, “Linking Environmental Impacts and Women’s Health Issues.”

A number of the presentations were of legitimate health value to the thousands of women and high schools students who attended. Through the distribution of literature, the government of Ontario and the Region of Peel Public Health department used the opportunity to promote “an alcohol-free pregnancy” and raised awareness about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. There was also the distribution of a fun Mocktail Guide, which contained non-alcoholic drink recipes.

A service called CReAte was promoted by the SWCH Fertility Centre. CReAte offers the possibility of collecting blood from the umbilical cord after the birth of a child. Peristem stem cells (tissues found around the blood vessels of the umbilical cord) can also be collected and stored. The blood and/or Peristem stem cells are then cryopreserved (frozen). They can be used to treat 70 life-threatening illnesses in the baby and possibly in other members of the direct family.

But there were also more dubious “health” concerns.

In the good old days, one would receive pens and note pads from exhibitors at similar events. On the Friday afternoon, teenage girls were bluntly targeted by “reproductive health” promoters. Ten exhibiters distributed condoms and birth control pill manufacturers were present to “inform” young girls about their products.

“Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, But Would Rather Not Ask,” hosted by the Bay Centre for Birth Control and Planned Parenthood Toronto, was attended by more than 100 Grade 10 girls who had been brought to the conference by their teachers. In the overflowing room, some had to sit on the floor. The presentation consisted of a sex IQ test. The group was presented with questions and multiple choice answers. For example, the presenter asked: “What should you do if you have an accident with your birth control?” The proposed answer (which most of the girls answered “correctly”) was “go to the walk-in clinic for the emergency contraception pill.”

The panel, composed of five members including a doctor and a retired nurse, informed the attendees that they did not need parental consent to get birth control; that it is possible to get pregnant right after having had an abortion; and that one cannot get pregnant by practising anal sex. Condoms were distributed at the end of the session.

Dr. Nancy Durand, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, spoke during a session entitled, “HPV Vaccination and Disease Prevention.” The session was sponsored by Merck Frost, maker of Gardasil, the only currently approved HPV vaccine in Canada. Durand stated that, to avoid contracting HPV, “delaying the first sexual experience is probably helpful, but it is a hard thing to do.” She mentioned the Ontario vaccination campaign of Grade 8 girls and stated that boys should be vaccinated because they can be carriers.

One of the panelists at a session addressing lesbian health talked about a course offered to LGBT (lesbians/gays/bisexuals/transgendered individuals) who wish to become parents. On week 8 of the course, the group is privy to a tour of the Labour and Delivery Wing of St. Michael’s, a Catholic hospital in Toronto.

Asked whether women, especially teenaged highschool students, are well served by the full panapoly of issues, a spokesman for Women for Women’s Health told The Interim, “It is valid to wonder whether or not the 16-year-old girls in attendance had enough wisdom to differentiate between the positive and negative messages they were bombarded with.”