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‘Neglected diseases’ of poor need attention

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Thana de Campos, 33, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, calls diseases such as Zika, Ebola, and leprosy “neglected diseases” because they afflict mainly poor people.

“Because they affect only the poor, pharmaceutical companies don’t have marketing incentives to do research for these populations and these diseases,” said de Campos. “There’s an ethical problem and a legal problem.”

On May 5, de Campos launched her book The Global Health Crisis: Ethical Responsibilities that examines the problems from a Catholic natural law perspective.

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, examines whether wealthier societies have a responsibility to fight these diseases, “even though these people are far away from us.”

“Are they our neighbours somehow?” she asked. “Because of globalization, the world is more united and inter-dependent, so it’s hard to argue we are not responsible for these people in Africa, Latin America or Asia.”

The book uses Catholic social teaching and the writings of Thomas Aquinas, “who would say we have a responsibility to help the poor, especially when we have a super-abundance,” de Campos said. “We have a lot more than we need, so we have a duty to give what is surplus to help the poor.”

She said she made an effort to “give a natural law framework to what the United Nations would call global justice.”

“Catholic social teaching has an framework for justice, using subsidiarity and solidarity,” she said.

She examines the duties individual citizens, civil society, pharmaceutical companies and governments in wealthy countries have to the poor in other countries.

The book also examines the legal problem, because “there is a legal structure that kind of justifies the neglect,” she said. “The intellectual property rights system is not wired to incentivize this kind of research. It’s only linked to profit.”

“These diseases won’t generate profit,” she said. The inability to make a profit “justifies the companies’ not being interested,” something that in itself is “not wrong or sinful.”

De Campos’ interest in these questions arose when she was working on her master’s degree and teaching at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

She applied for a research position at the United Nations in Geneva to learn about the differing positions at the UN.

The UN had a special rapporteur for discussing this issue, but people “couldn’t agree on what approach they should have,” de Campos said. “What was missing was conceptual clarity but not political will.”

All agreed the issue of the “neglected diseases” was important, but they could not agree on “what is the responsibility, what is health, what is justice, what do we owe to each other,” de Campos said. “These are the kinds of things I try to address in the book.”

“I do hope to have an impact with my scholarship,” she said. “I don’t necessarily see my work impacting the UN as much, but I would love to see some impact on the Holy See and the way the Holy See somehow tries to direct the UN.”

De Campos said she would love to see the Holy See be more active in shaping UN policy.

“Some of the policies that the UN implements and supports are very against what Catholics support and would agree with,” de Campos said. “I think the Holy See could have a more prominent role in shaping international human rights law and policy at the global level.”

“One of aims of my scholarship in the future is to influence the UN through the Holy See,” she said, noting the roots or international human rights law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are “very Catholic-based.”

It would be one of the goals of my scholarship to bring natural law tradition to where it belongs,” she said. “In other words, to bring human rights back to natural law tradition.”

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