Experts convene on using human rights to combat chronic disease

In fitness-friendly Southern California, it’s hard to imagine a life where women can’t ride bikes or hit the gym. But until recently, women in Saudi Arabia could do neither.

Even with their government’s steps forward in legalizing these activities, Saudi women still face barriers to exercising, despite its proven effectiveness in warding off cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity—all of which are increasing in the country.

Experts from around the world who convened at USC in May saw this as one of many examples where human rights and chronic disease intersect.

The landmark USC conference brought together experts to examine how the fields of public health and human rights can unite to tackle chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

With the 2015 United Nations Millennium Development Goals deadline hurtling closer, the pressure is on to reign in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the world’s leading cause of death.

Some believe attention to human rights will be the key to success.

Organized by the Program on Global Health & Human Rights at the USC Institute for Global Health, the meeting hosted dozens of doctors, lawyers, activists and researchers representing major universities, the United Nations system, and civil society groups from every region of the world.

“This is a very new collaboration and we have a lot of ground to cover,” said Sofia Gruskin, director of the Program on Global Health & Human Rights. “But thanks to this meeting, we now have a clearer idea how to proceed in using human rights to encourage governments and industries—and inspire activists—to take responsibility for preventing and controlling these diseases.”

For example, with governments around the world bound to uphold their human rights commitments, they can be held accountable by the international community when people are denied their right to health and develop non-communicable diseases as a result.

The conference, “Roles and Responsibilities in Realizing Health and Human Rights in the Prevention and Control of Non Communicable Diseases,” took a conversational approach that allowed the experts to speak candidly across disciplines and cultures.

At the beginning, many chronic disease experts admitted they knew little about the human rights field—and vice versa. However, as talks continued, the group found common ground in discussing shared experiences, potential areas of collaborative research and policy agendas.

According to Professor Daniel Tarantola of the University of New South Wales in Australia and chair of the conference steering committee, there are two ways human rights can be helpful to NCD prevention and control: one is to look at human rights violations and their impact on NCDs and the other is to look at the fulfillment of human rights and their positive impact on the reduction of the disease burden resulting from NCDs.

Over the course of the three-day meeting, discussions frequently circled back to the battle over Big Tobacco as a model to tackle other industries that contribute to non-communicable diseases—like processed food monopolies and alcohol distributors.

“The thing about NCDs is that we know how to address many of them, but a number of things are getting in the way—education gaps, bad policy, industry giants and funding,” said Laura Ferguson, assistant professor with the USC Program on Global Health & Human Rights and one of the main organizers of the meeting. “If we re-frame these diseases as human rights issues, we could possibly make more progress.”

Students and experts alike will benefit from the USC talks soon—an online short course, featuring exclusive interviews with the experts, is being developed to offer an introduction to the human rights and NCD frameworks and linkages.