Utah Valley Global Health Group

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

Archive for the ‘Health and Human Rights’ Category

Book Review: “Mountains Beyond Mountains”

Posted by chads on January 24, 2008

It’s been over 3 years since I read Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains:  The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.”  While I don’t remember details of the book, I do remember staying up late at night reading, unable to put the book down.  I remember being pushed into a corner, forced to face the realities of the global health situation.  I remember having no choice but to ask myself questions such as:  “Do that many people really suffer and die needlessly?” and “Can a small group of people really make a difference on such a large scale?”  and “Is health a human right?  Should it be a human right?”

Paul Farmer, it seems, is a “rock star” of global health.  I went to hear him speak in Chicago a few years ago, and, after waiting in line for an hour and a half, I left without shaking his hand.  While it could be argued that Dr. Farmer has received a disproportionate amount of credit (fame?) for his work, few would disagree that his story inspires, and that the work of him and other pioneers of health and human rights has changed the direction of global health forever.

Paul was raised in a bus and on a boat.  He went to medical school at Harvard, where he also earned a PhD in anthropology.  Much of his time, however, was spent in Haiti, not Boston, where he sought to bring medicines to people dying of AIDS, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases, people others had either given up on, or never thought of.  This, he would say, is a “morally clear” cause.  This book chronicles his journey from idealistic medical student to a respected leader who influences policy and the way we as a global society view global health.

The title is based on a Haitian proverb:  after one trial comes another, and workers in global health can attest to the truth of that statement.

I highly recommend this book.  It is both entertaining, and thought-provoking.

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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.

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