The following post is an opinion piece from Jeanne Chauffour, a student at the University of Chicago*
Health is a human right. This phrase is clearly stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), along with a long list of other highly-held treaties and conventions. For countries having ratified these treaties, the right to health should be strongly defended. Unfortunately, health is still a commodity or unattainable luxury for millions of people around the world – both in developed and developing nations.
Longstanding efforts certainly exist to remedy the great health inequalities of our time; millions of dollars a year are donated to large organizations, agencies, and bodies who strive to improve health and wellbeing in the most impoverished settings across the world. And for the most part, they have done good work – we have reduced maternal mortality rates, and the AIDS-free generation is a tangible reality. Yet, one health issue that continues to be underfunded and underprioritzed is neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs.
Health is a human right. And NTDs are a serious health concern. There are seventeen NTDs that currently plague our planet –, seven of which represent 90 percent of the global burden. NTDs are the most common affliction among the world’s poorest people, but they are often ignored because they mostly infect those living in rural poverty. The individuals infected with NTDs are rarely the focus of media attention.
NTDs have been referred to as “the forgotten disease of the forgotten people,” causing disfigurement (swollen abdomens and limbs), rashes, and inverted eyelashes, and fueling stigma — making it harder for those affected to break the cycle of poverty. NTDs can also lead to long-term disabilities and other health issues such as blindness. In many cultures, the condition of those suffering from NTDs is perceived to be a curse or a sin, and the stigma can affect an entire family. I cannot even come close to imagining the life and mental health conditions of the millions of people worldwide living with NTDs.
NTDs can also cause stunted growth and malnutrition. In addition, NTDs are directly correlated to the first six Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, that have guided our international development efforts over the past fourteen years. Our failure to adequately address the NTD burden may have contributed to our failure to reach many of the MDGs, which will be replaced by new UN goals later this year.
The unfortunate truth is that some diseases that affect western communities (such as cancer, diabetes or HIV/AIDS) are propelled to the forefront of research, while other treatable diseases not found in the developed world receive less attention and funding. NTDs have been around for hundreds of years, and some of their treatments are decades old, yet they lag behind other conditions in the attention they receive from the global community.
Luckily, a solution exists, and recent efforts have raised the visibility of NTDs on the global health agenda. On January 30, 2012, the London Declaration on NTDs was signed by the WHO, the World Bank, the Gates Foundation, thirteen pharmaceutical companies, and leaders from the US, UK and UAE. These stakeholders committed to ensuring the resources necessary to end the public health threat of ten of the most common NTDs by 2020, and progress since has been impressive.
Even more, some countries have been successful in eradicating or eliminating NTDs over the past few years: Oman has eliminated trachoma, Colombia has eliminated onchocerciasis, and Nigeria eradicated guinea worm disease. In all, over 70 countries have developed multi-year integrated NTD plans, and the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a landmark resolution on all 17 NTDs in May 2013.
The London Declaration has been a huge step forward in solidifying the commitment of pharmaceutical companies to donate the medicine needed to protect a person from the seven most common NTDs for one whole year. National governments coordinate the distribution of the medicine with local health workers who administer the medicine during annual mass drug administrations (MDAs). But a large funding gap persists that limits our efforts to scale up treatment to everyone who needs it.
Health is a human right. And so are many other things: free speech, choice of religion, participation in civic and political life and education. Yet, health is and should be perceived as one of the fundamental rights humans have, without which the exercise of their other rights and freedoms is limited or nonexistent. Health more than any other factor determines livelihood and the capacity to improve one’s own condition.
Health is the driving mechanism to generate wealth, access, and success in many other types of activities – being able to vote, being able to go to school, contributing to the progress and growth of your country’s economy, being able to choose a respectful partner and have healthy children of your own.
Health is a human right, and any phrase related to health with the word “neglected” in its title must find justice, especially when we are equipped with all the tools that we need to succeed. It is only when these basic health inequities will be solved that our world will truly be able to pull the most and the best from individuals’ potential. Health is a human right.
*Jeanne Chauffour is a rising fourth year undergraduate student at The University of Chicago where she studies in the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine (HIPSS) and Human Rights departments. Jeanne is the 2014-2015 Internal Co-President at GlobeMed at the University of Chicago, a student global health non-profit organization she has been a part of since her freshman year. Jeanne is also involved in community health with Students for Health Equity, the Student Health Advisory Board, the University of Chicago Center for Global Health, and Ci3. In October 2014, Jeanne will be a delegate at the Millennium Campus Conference.