Health and Human Dignity: an Inseparable PAIR

The First International Conference on Health and Human Rights gives Public Health a New Direction

A few years ago, a homosexual man contracted AIDS in San Francisco. Instead, he decided to forgo the city's excellent health care system and support network to return home to Georgia and live his last days peacefully with his family.

But the family treated him as if he were a public embarrassment. Homosexuality and AIDS were taboo in the town in which they lived, and the family took pains to ensure that the community knew nothing of his existence.

Early each morning, the mother would drive her son to a secluded spot in the woods. She would then walk back home, leaving the sick man languishing in the car for the entire day.

Only at night would she return to drive her son back home, where he was locked in his room with the shades drawn and no phone to communicate with the outside world.

The human rights violations suffered by this man exacerbated his illness, condemning him to an early death.

This was just one of the real life scenarios discussed by academics, government officials, community health workers and human rights activists from all over the world at the first International Conference on Health and Human Rights, held Thursday to Saturday in Cambridge.

The conference, attended by 350 people from more than 25 countries, was sponsored by the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, part of the School of Public Health.

The Bagnoud center, founded in January 1993, is the first of its kind devoted to the field of health and human rights. It was funded by a $20 million donation, the largest ever given to the School of Public Health.

Dr. Jonathan M. Mann, director of the center, said the conference's objectives were to exchange information, educate the participants and build solidarity.

Conference participants discussed such human rights violations as discrimination against intravenous drug users, the removal of organs without full consent and genocide in war-torn countries including Bosnia.

Representatives from several organizations, including Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights and the Red Cross also reflected on how attitudes such as homophobia and racism negatively impact general health.

Mann said the field of health and human rights is relatively new and not well-understood by the general public.

The major challenge of the conference, he said, was building a bridge between two fields which traditionally have had so little interaction.

"The conference brings together what have largely been different communities of interest, in the human rights field and in the health field, and opens up lines of communication and opportunities for further relations and developments for the future," said Harvey V. Fineberg '67, dean of the school of public health.

Conference Discussions