Utah Valley Global Health Group

A blog about global health for those living in Utah Valley and their friends.

Is Health a Human Right?

Posted by chads on October 26, 2006

For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, there have been times in history when it seems that the majority of a society has come to some sort of a consensus that the current state of affairs simply cannot be. People and organizations with differing goals unite and sacrifice to bring about change on a grand scale.

We often look back at those times and wonder why change did not happen sooner. It seems blatantly obvious, for example, that women should be able to vote, or that people are not property, or that children should not be forced to work long hours in dangerous factories.

The current global health situation, I believe, represents one of those historical times. The numbers are staggering, almost incomprehensible. An estimated 10 million children under the age of five die yearly, and 63% of those are preventable. 38.6 million people world wide were living with HIV at the end of 2005, and most will die young if major changes are not made in the way we view health very soon. Similar statistics abound with respect to women dying during childbirth, children in Africa dying of malaria, etc.

I believe that future generations will look back at our time and see a need that so desperately needed to be filled that it will leave them asking “why?” in the same way we do about slavery and women’s rights. Recent advances in communication, transportation, public health practices, and medical advances make the cause so much clearer.

While the United Nations declared that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself…” in 1948, it seems to me that the movement to consider health a human right on a grand scale has only come to pass recently. This movement has been fueled by the AIDS pandemic.

Viewing health in a human rights framework has several advantages. There seems to be a sense of urgency when a cause is viewed as a right. It also provides historical precedence; comparing the current movement to prior struggles can provide examples for strategies, as well as hope that change can take place.

There are also many limitations to the view that health is a human right. The first is the very difficult (impossible?) task of defining health. There is also, of course, the risk of a slippery slope. A recent article received quite a bit of news coverage when it showed that swimming with dolphins was effective at treating depression. Are all depressed people who have failed traditional management entitled to their own dolphin? Viewing health as a human right also begs the question of enforcement. Who should be accountable to ensuring basic health? Parents? Communities? Governments? Multinational Agencies?

Personally, I welcome the potential struggle with definitions and a slippery slope. I also welcome the myriad of difficult questions that come with ensuring that all have basic health. I view health as a human right because the alternative – the current global health situation – is unacceptable.


2 Responses to “Is Health a Human Right?”

  1. tylerpaul said


    I support you cause. We haven’t yet been able to secure “universal” healthcare in the US, let alone in the world entire. You should look in to the group UAEM (Universities Allied for Essential Medicine). We have on the most active chapters here–the purpose of the group is to persuade large research universities to leverage their contracts with pharmaceutical companies to attempt to secure access of the poor to necessary medications. I’ll see if I can find a link for you…

  2. chads said

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tyler. UAEM seems like a worthwhile and needed organization. There certainly is a huge disparity in research for diseases that are prevalent in developed vs. developing countries. Here is a link to the organization: http://www.essentialmedicine.org/index.php

    It does give me pause, however, whenever access to healthcare in the US is mentioned in the same breath as health in developing countries. Don’t get me wrong: I recognize the tremendous lack of health insurance in the US, and experience it everyday in the emergency department.

    There really is no comparison, however, with, for example, infant mortality or maternal mortality in developing countries. Interventions that are taken for granted here – clean water, vaccinations, etc. – are desperately in places like sub Saharan Africa. It seems to me that improving health in developing countries (to borrow Paul Farmer’s words) is “morally clear”, and needs to be addressed immediately without delay. Access to healthcare in the US, on the other hand, is somewhere on the slippery slope. It certainly needs to be addressed, but I don’t feel the same urgency. I’ll probably post on this subject soon.

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