15/10/2013 09:47 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Right to Health, the Forgotten Right?

As the world debates human rights this Blog Action Day, I'd hazard a guess as to which of the great human rights will get one of the lowest word counts. Well, let's try and raise it up a little. Health. Health. Health. Health. Health. Health. Health.

It might not be the first right that normally comes to mind - life, free speech, vote, etc. But in terms of basic human rights, health is about as fundamentally important as it gets.

To be clear, the right to health doesn't mean everyone has a legal right to be healthy. It means they have a right to the highest standard of health they can reasonably attain, which is therefore basically a right to the determinants of good health - such as a decent health system, along with all the social and economic determinants of health (in fact, especially the social and economic determinants).

On paper the right to health is well-established:

  • The World Health Organisation has affirmed the universal right to the highest attainable standard of health;
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says 'everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family'.

In practice though, it's a different story.

Some rights, such as the right to vote, can be clearly legislated for, and progress is pretty easy to quantify. But health's more complex, and depends on so many factors. As a 'right', it receives comparatively little attention.

The difficulty's in the myriad of factors that impact on health. Achieving the right to health requires good quality healthcare that is accessible, accountable and culturally appropriate; nutritious food; clean water and sanitation; housing; education; gender equality; adequate income. Oh, and not being killed. Or raped. Or genitally mutilated. And don't forget the effects of climate change.

Many of these social and economic determinants of health fundamentally come down to poverty, which even more fundamentally means a lack of power. Poverty and powerlessness are both causes and consequences of poor health. The two are inextricably linked.

It soon becomes clear that the right to health drives an even stronger focus on virtually all the other rights - and much more besides. It shouldn't be a neglected adjunct to the human rights agenda. We need to put it centre stage. We need to make it one of the driving forces of the human rights agenda.