Working together to combat global health inequalities

By Prof John Coggon, Professor of Law, and Dr Judy Laing, Reader in Law, co-Directors of the Centre for Health, Law and Society (University of Bristol Law School).

The World Health Organization (WHO) celebrated its 70th anniversary last month, on 7th April 2018, which is World Health Day. The WHO was established in 1948 and one of its founding principles provides that:

the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.

The WHO has achieved a considerable amount in that time by focusing on many of the key challenges to reducing global health inequalities. Some of the most recent challenges faced by the WHO are the rise in drug resistance across the globe, as well as the threat of global pandemics, as witnessed with the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014, and the burdens of noncommunicable disease. International organisations such as the WHO have a crucial role to play in tackling these threats to our health fairly and effectively, but it cannot achieve change alone. The WHO must do so in partnership with national governments and other key actors. Within these agendas, there are crucial roles for law and governance as levers to help create the conditions in which people can enjoy good physical and mental health.

One of the world’s leading global health law scholars, and one such key actor and WHO collaborator, Professor Larry Gostin, visited the Centre for Health, Law, and Society (CHLS) at the University of Bristol in April 2018 as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor. He came to talk about his collaborations with the WHO, and to explore some of the key global health challenges with staff and students from across and beyond the university. A key focus throughout his visit was the ways that we can and should link scholarship with activism, policy, and practice: a question at the heart of the mission of CHLS.

Professor Gostin directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University and was the Founding O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law. He is the Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law & Human Rights. The WHO Director-General has appointed Professor Gostin to high-level positions and he has served on the Director-General’s Advisory Committee on Reforming the World Health Organization, as well as numerous WHO expert advisory committees on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework, smallpox, and genomic sequencing data.

Following a fun and informal welcome to Bristol on the CHLS Health Law Hike, Professor Gostin’s visit began with a symposium on Global Health with Justice, organised by Professor Keith Syrett. This symposium was based on Professor Gostin’s vision for global health which is explored in his ground-breaking book Global Health Law (Harvard University Press, 2014). Papers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds were presented, dealing with issues around access in global health, and actors in global health. Some of the challenges to regulating antimicrobial resistance were explored in the early sessions by researchers from the University of Bristol who have developed collaborations with researchers in Bangladesh and China.

Another key challenge for global health is the increasing threat of global pandemics. Professor Gostin has played a key role in advising the WHO on global pandemics, and this was the focus of his public lecture: Global Health Security in an Era of Explosive Pandemic. He made a strong case for fundamental reform of the international system to safeguard global health security, building on the action agenda offered by four international commissions formed in the wake of the Ebola epidemic. He also spoke to the role of justice within global health agendas. On the same day, he additionally inspired a future generation of health-focused scholars by sharing his extensive expertise and knowledge with doctoral students at a PhD masterclass.

The CHLS was honoured to welcome Professor Gostin to the University of Bristol. His visit left us reflecting on some of the key challenges to tackling global health inequalities and what steps are needed to help WHO to realise the goal of ensuring ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard’ for every human being.

The Centre for Health, Law, and Society

Prof Coggon and Dr Laing are co-Directors of the Centre for Health, Law, and Society at the University of Bristol.  The Centre promotes transdisciplinary and cross-sector perspectives on the impacts of law and governance on physical, mental and social wellbeing. For more information about the Centre and its members, projects and postgraduate student opportunities please visit the Centre website: Centre for Health, Law, and Society.

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