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Thursday 19th April 2018

Health care and human rights

3rd August 2007

In a series of four papers, The Lancet looks at the intertwining issues of health and human rights.

time for listening

In it, the authors argue for three main connections between health care and human rights. One connections lies in the effects of human rights violations such as torture, rape, state-sponsored killings and inhumane experimentation.

Another has to do with how people accessing health services are treated, and the third with the effects on human rights of public health policies and programmes.

Awareness of human rights and the involvement, or not, of the medical profession in their violation, began in modern times with the Nazi concentration camps.

One of the main stimuli focusing attention on the link between healthcare and human rights in recent years has been the AIDS epidemic.

The UN AIDS agency under Jonathan Mann, who died in the Swissair 111 crash of Sept. 2, 1998, was instrumental in changing the way rights and public health were viewed in the field of AIDS.

Researchers in the field had identified for the first time a clear correlation between the level of discrimination that existed in any society, and the severity of its AIDS epidemic.

People who were treated with dignity were expected to exert their rights, and to take a more active part in treatment and prevention programmes.

Since the 1980s, responses to the HIV pandemic have drawn attention to the rights of the most vulnerable people and societies, and the need to prevent discrimination in both law and practice.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also carries responsibilities related to the promotion of human rights principles in global healthcare systems under the UN Charter.

The preface to the WHO constitution define 'health' as a state of 'complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'.

In keeping with UN Covenants on human rights, it identifies the right to enjoy good health as a fundamental right of every human being.

That includes provision for the reduction of the stillbirth rate and of infant mortality and for the healthy development of children, the improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene, the prevention, treatment, and control of epidemic, endemic, occupational, and other diseases, and the creation of conditions which would assure to all medical service and medical attention in the event of sickness.

However, in practice, approaches to human rights and health vary widely.

In some parts of the world, people have benefited from developments in HIV treatment and and care, for example, greatly extending the life expectancy of someone living with HIV.

But progress has been far below expectations in poorer countries, in spite of global initiatives.

Pharmaceutical companies have lowered the prices of antiretroviral drugs in low-income countries as a result of widespread global pressure, however.

And humanitarian groups like Medicins Sans Frontieres have shown how individual healthcare practitioners can make a difference on the ground.

Although not initially intended as the launch of a health and human rights movement, the emergence and growing influence of these groups and those that have followed, has drawn attention to the universal value of health and the duty of care providers, other humanitarian workers, and the international community to intervene when human rights are ignored.


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