Advancing the right to health: the vital role of law

February 23, 2017

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In a recent report published by the World Health Organization, the autors highlight the vital role of law reform in advancing the right to health. What are the most effective tools for doing this? This report illustrates how countries have enacted and implemented a wide range of laws and regulations with a demonstrable impact on the health and safety of their populations.

This report aims to encourage and assist governments to reform their public health laws in order to advance the right to health. It provides guidance about issues and requirements to be addressed during the process of developing these laws. It also includes case studies and examples of legislation from a variety of countries to illustrate effective law reform practices and some features of effective public health legislation.

Public health law reform

Part 2 discusses the process of public health law reform, i.e., the practical steps involved in advancing the political goal of law reform, and the kinds of issues and obstacles that may be encountered along the way. In Part 3 a number of core areas of public health practice are listed where regulation is essential. These include the provision of clean water and sanitation, monitoring and surveillance of public health threats, the management of communicable diseases, and addressing public health emergencies.

Other issues discussed are the role of law in advancing universal access to quality health services for all citizens, and the role it has to play in addressing a number of public health priorities, includiung tobacco control, access to essential medicines, the migration of health care workers, nutrition, and maternal, reproductive and child health.

Intended audience

This report is intended to inform a wide audience of senior officials working within ministries of health; officials of other ministries; members of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government; and other stakeholders, including members of health organizations, philanthropic organizations, the media, industry, academia, employer and labour organizations, and civil society organizations.

The report was developed by WHO, the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), the University of Sydney (Australia) and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University (Washington (DC).

Table of contents


1             Public health regulation and the right to health


2             The context of public health law reform activities

3             Assessing the case for the reform of public health law

4             Building blocks for effective public health laws

5             Good governance in the process of public health law reform

6             Coordinated, intersectoral action to improve public health


7             Achieving universal access to quality health services

8             Clean water, sanitation and vector abatement

9             Monitoring, surveillance, and investigation of health threats

10           Controlling the spread of infectious diseases

11           Public health emergencies

12           Enabling environments to support healthy and safe behaviours

13           Tobacco control.

14           Migration and retention of health care workers

15           Access to essential medicines, TRIPS and the patent system

16           Legal responses to poor nutrition: undernutrition, overweight and obesity

17           Maternal, reproductive and child health

Access Advancing the right to health: the vital role of law. WHO, January 2017