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Health as a human right: what role do health professionals play?

Interested in the intersection between health and human rights? A new book on this topic has been published online, and the scope is impressive: maternal mortality, social determinants of health, neglected diseases, mental health, and global politics.

The book, "Exclusion and the Right to Health: The Role of Health Professionals," is in Spanish, but each chapter has a summary in English.

It arose from an extraordinary meeting last year in Lima, Peru to discuss the role that health professionals can play in promoting health as a human right. The meeting was organized by Peru's Civil Association for Health and Human Rights Education (EDHUCASalud) and the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisations (IFHHRO).

I was lucky enough to attend and had the privilege of hearing talks by, among others, Paul Hunt (the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health), Paul Farmer, Alicia Yamin, and David Gordon.

Paul Hunt has described his mandate as: "First, to raise the profile of the right to health as a fundamental human right. Second, to clarify what the right to health means. Third, to suggest ways in which the right to health can be made operational."

In the opening keynote address at the meeting in Lima, he explained how he is invited by national governments to specifically report on health and human rights issues in these countries.

He was asked to report, for example, on neglected tropical diseases in Uganda. During the keynote (and in an article archived by the Human Rights Centre at Essex University), Professor Hunt outlined how looking at these diseases through a “rights lens” led to a number of observations that had policy implications.

These included the importance of developing an integrated health system (vertical interventions, he said, have a role to play but must be designed to strengthen, not undermine, an integrated health system) and the crucial role of village health teams to identify local health priorities.

I was intrigued to hear that in January 2006 he was invited to visit Sweden. Given this country's impressive record on human rights and on equitable health care delivery, would there be anything to report upon? Hunt's report does consistently commend Sweden, but he also found some areas of concern.

For example, he found a shortage of "research and knowledge focusing on the health of the Swedish Sami," the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia. He recommended the establishment of a Sami health research center, and also suggested that "the Government consider establishing a body within the Ministry of Health with national responsibility for oversight of Sami health."

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I have authored one of the book's chapters, on neglected tropical diseases, based on a talk that I gave at the meeting.

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