10/12/2011 15:12 GMT | Updated 08/02/2012 05:12 GMT

Health is a Human Right

Every year, Human Rights Day spurs debate around the world about what constitutes a human right. Much-vaunted, often controversial, and little understood, it seems there's still a great deal of contention about which rights are most important.

Amidst the inevitable annual clamour, there is one right that almost everyone accepts is fundamental: the right to life. "Everyone has the right to life," noted the Universal Declaration in 1948, and it's been first on every list ever since.

How often do we stop and consider the implications of this statement? Of course, it means that another person is not justified in taking your life, but how far does this extend? If you're seriously injured and I refuse to take you to hospital, have I killed you? How about if I have a pill that will save your life and I fail to hand it over? Is it the same if you live 10,000 miles away and I've never met you?

Around the world, millions of people die from preventable or treatable illnesses. 1.4 million children die every year from diseases that people here in the UK are routinely vaccinated against. Malaria kills 2400 people a day. The world's lack of action on these issues leads directly to unimaginable suffering, and it is high time we started to recognise that this is a human rights issue.

Cancer is not often seen as a major public health priority on the same lines, but 4500 lives are saved every year in the UK alone by the national cervical cancer screening programme, and the figures are comparable in other western nations. These programmes significantly contribute to the startling fact that 88 per cent of deaths from cervical cancer occur in the developing world. As more of the British population is vaccinated against HPV, we could see this gulf growing even further.

As is the case for many diseases, education is central to reducing deaths from cancer. In the west, public health programmes mean people are generally aware of the lifestyle factors that can cause cancer, know the signs to look out for, and recognise the importance of getting checked. In other areas around the world this just isn't the case. Social constructs mean some people don't trust the health system, feel there is a stigma attached, or believe diseases are inevitable or incurable.

Lack of awareness means people often don't seek medical help for cancer until they are already seriously ill, and late diagnosis is particularly devastating in developing countries: treatment can be very effective after early diagnosis, but local infrastructure is ill equipped to deal with advanced cases, as there is very limited access to radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

This is healthcare at the most basic level. Preventing diseases that can be prevented, ensuring people are able to make the best possible choices about their health, and introducing screening programmes that have the power to save lives must be seen as inherent to the human right to life.

Of course, there is always disagreement about the details of how to deliver healthcare. A growing number of doctors are claiming that some breast cancer screening programmes in the West have caused unnecessary stress to women who might be misdiagnosed. There has also been debate about the cervical cancer vaccine, with people raising moral and scientific questions about its use. Some say these measures aren't necessary, or should only be given to certain age or risk groups. For every disease, it's important to pay close attention to these debates and to ensure that policies are informed by the latest evidence.

This is the luxury of the west. We have access to the best treatment the world has ever seen. Our health systems constantly evaluate their methods and make improvements. We have the right to healthcare, and so we're able to question how best to deliver it. These debates must not distract us from the enormous gulf between western nations and those in developing countries and excluded communities.

In 2010, I founded The Odysseus Foundation, a charity that runs outreach and screening programmes for breast and cervical cancer in developing countries around the world. There are many other admirable charities that work in this area, but we must also put pressure on our governments to give more support to agencies and programmes around the world.

Preventative health care is simple and, in the greater scheme of things, it is cheap. Education, vaccinations, and screening programmes have an incredible impact. If I have the power to do something that might save someone's life, and I choose not to do so, I can't pretend that I'm not implicated. Likewise, it's time to accept that the world has a responsibility to extend basic healthcare provision to everyone. Life is a human right.