Better Health, Better Human Rights

New research shows that a highly effective way to control and defeat infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria is by focusing on the most vulnerable populations. That has big implications for human rights.

No entire country, or entire population, is at the same risk of contracting infectious diseases. Many diseases disproportionately affect the groups of people who get left behind, because they are criminalized and at the margins of society.

By better identifying and locating those at greatest risk of becoming infected because of where they live or who they are, some scientists now argue that we can dramatically improve our ability to control the spread of these diseases.

In the case of HIV and tuberculosis, that means reaching those who are most vulnerable: women and girls, sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people in prison and migrants.

Since the Global Fund began in 2002, it has been committed to advancing human rights in the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria. Yet we always look for ways to improve. Recently, the Global Fund's Board - composed of governments from around the world, civil society and communities affected by the diseases, private foundations, the private sector and technical and implementing partners - renewed and strengthened our mandate to promote human rights. This, in turn, promotes the global effort to defeat HIV, TB and malaria while building health systems.

The people most vulnerable to disease often don't have access to health programs due to lack of information, discrimination, and the fear of arrest. To reach the most vulnerable people, to keep them in health programs once they start, and to make sure they get appropriate services, greater engagement is needed by partners in civil society including community- and faith-based groups that meet people where they are. Ensuring those groups have the right to register as organizations, to exchange health information freely, and to share opinions that can help countries to improve health policy, is equally important. In other words, a strong health system must reach past the clinic into the community.

We are building human rights concerns into the grant cycle of our work. We are taking specific steps including human rights training for our fund portfolio managers, establishing a human rights reference group, and setting up systems to explicitly track funding spent on rights-based interventions to reach our public health goals.

More than that, we are expanding our work to engage a broad field of advocates already actively representing key populations and working to protect human rights. We need to make sure that human rights interventions that get developed are effective and appropriate.

To really defeat these diseases, we have to focus on protecting the basic human rights of the vulnerable, making scientific advances available to everybody. We have to make sure everyone has the same basic rights, human rights. This is not only the right thing to do. It greatly increases the impact of our investments.

What is more, an international financial institution like the Global Fund now recognizes that conditions that favor human rights, such as rule of law and legal transparency and accountability, also favor secure financial investment. The safer our investments are, the more people we can reach.

If investing in services such as legal empowerment or police training seems a step away from the Global Fund's mission to prevent and treat AIDS, TB and malaria, we have actually learned from years of hard lessons - from the U.S. and Europe to rural Africa - that we can't achieve our health goals unless vulnerable and marginalized groups are part of the social fabric.

What's more, by advancing health and human rights together, we can achieve moments of real community. We can welcome everyone into the human family. We can advance the human spirit.

We have an historic opportunity to break down the barriers that divide us and come together to bring HIV, TB and malaria under control. We must rise to the challenge of advancing human rights or we cannot advance evidence-based public health.