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Governments need to be more aware of human rights implications of health care

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 03 August 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:238
  1. Fiona Fleck
  1. Geneva

    Governments around the world need to be more aware of human rights issues when developing healthcare policy, says the World Health Organization in a new pamphlet on the subject.

    The pamphlet says that the link between human rights and health has started only recently to get the attention it deserves, because of the growing demand for greater accountability in health.

    The 36 page pamphlet–part of a WHO campaign to make health officials and practitioners more aware of the connection between health and human rights–urges governments to provide safety nets to ensure that the most vulnerable people in society have access to the health care they need.

    The pamphlet also warns that poorly designed or implemented health programmes and policies can lead to human rights violations if they fail to recognise the health needs of the most vulnerable people.

    A high standard of health has been enshrined in the WHO constitution ever since the organisation was founded in 1946 by the United Nations. The pamphlet's author, Helena Nygren-Krug, said, “Linking health and human rights could act as a force for mobilising and empowering the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

    She added that the needs of several groups, including women, children, elderly people, disabled people, religious and ethnic minorities, and refugees were too often disregarded.

    The pamphlet also looks at health problems arising from human rights violations, such as violence against women and torture, and the civil rights implications for people with diseases or conditions that leave them stigmatised by society, such as HIV infection and AIDS. And it tackles access to affordable health care, health financing in poor countries, and how poor health can be used against patients applying for jobs and insurance.

    Ms Nygren-Krug said that health should be promoted not as a charity but as a human right, to make people aware of their “oppression and the possibility of change.” This in turn would provide communities with a legal and moral basis on which to obtain international assistance if needed, she said.

    Other UN bodies are also trying to promote greater understanding of human rights issues in health policy and practice. This year the UN Human Rights Commission appointed an independent expert, known as a “special rapporteur,” to compile an annual report on governments' progress around the world.

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