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  • Volume 377 1719 (2011)
  • May 21, 2011

Tuberculosis in Chiapas, Mexico: A Human Rights Perspective


Sustainable healthcare provision, requires effectively functioning systems from clinical to governmental level. This is a challenging task and only by identify and improving weaknesses within the whole system is will things progress. No matter how good a clinician is, or how hard they work, if the support systems are failing, they will not be able to work effectively.

Human rights have become an invaluable tool for improving health systems, aswell as broader social factors effecting health, such as discrimination and violence. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has come to be known as ‘the right to health’, requires governmental recoginition of everyone’s right to ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also explicitly recognises health rights, particularly in Article 25, where wider social determinants of health including food, clothing and medical care are also specifically noted. The highest attainable standard of health requires health systems to function effectively, on all levels. Failing in this due to incompetance and neglect constitutes violations of these rights, as the ‘highest attainable standard of health’ is not being achieved.

This article discusses how a number of organizations in the Mexican state of Chiapas are applying human rights frameworks to the case of tuberculosis (TB). It will identify failings in the realisation of the highest attainable standard of health, and explore ways to ensure sustainable improvement in health care provision to indigenous populations in this area.

Mexico – Middle-Income, High Inequality

Mexico is classified by The World Bank as a middle-income country, with a Gross National Product of US$1,086 billion. In spite of its financial resources, Mexico has high levels of inequality, with 20% of the population living on less than US$2 per day (1). It also has the poorest Human Development Index rating of all the OECD countries (2). A recent report also criticized for having health indicators well below the average for the OECD, with specific mention of access inequalities and inadequate health insurance coverage for the poor (3).

Chiapas is the southern-most state of Mexico, bordering Guatemala to the south. 26% of the Chiapas population is composed of indigenous groups, the majority of which are of Mayan descent – the inhabitants of this region before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s (4). Despite being rich in a variety of natural resources and a significant producer of Mexico’s hydroelectric power, Chiapas is one of the poorest Mexican states.

The indigenous people of Chiapas have suffered a long history of discrimination, marginalisation and prejudice, punctuated with violent episodes, from the bloody arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, to the 1997 ‘Acteal Massacre’ of 15 children, 21 women (four of whom where pregnant) and nine men, in a church by a group of paramilitaries. The situation culminated in the 1994 uprising of anti-governmental groups, predominantly composed of empassioned indigenous peoples. The best known of these groups is the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), more commonly referred to as the ´Zapatistas’. The EZLN intended to force the end of the mistreatment of indigenous people in Mexico, predominantly using a stratagy of non-complaince and civil resistance. The EZLN formed a parallel government which still controls a number of areas in Chiapas

Health as a Political Tool

The political climate in Chiapas has led to the fragmentation, politicisation, and general degradation of already limited governmental provisions, required for the realisation of human rights. Beyond simply not providing it, healthcare has been used as a political tool to fragment, and therefore weaken, some of the poorest communities in Mexico (5). This politicisation of both governmental, and anti-governmental health services, has resulted in people being denied treatment including childhood vaccinations, and receiving abuse from health workers, due to their political affiliation and or ethnicity (5). Attempting to sway pollitical opinion by denying unwell people their right to available treatment, is unacceptable and unjustifiable regardless of context.

Statistics show that healthcare resource allocation inversely correlates with marginalisation in Mexico, with health expenditure per-capita for insured people being up to twelve times higher than for those without health insurance (6). Looking at TB in mexico, these inequalities in health care provision are striking.

TB in Chiapas

Chiapas has one the highest TB incidence rates in Mexico, with a TB mortality rate twice the national average, the highest of any Mexican state (7). However, independent research has found significantly higher rates of TB in Chiapas, indicating that the situation in Chiapas may in fact be much worse than suggested by governmental research (5).

Particular factors relating to the development of TB, that are common in the rural indigenous communities of Chiapas, include high rates of malnutrition, cooking with solid fuels, dirt-floored housing, poor sanitation, cramped and over-crowded accommodation, poor access to medical services and poor working conditions (8,9). Such factors are also central to the development of many other other communicable and non-communicable diseases, hence steps to address such factors can have health implications beyond TB.

The Mexican Official Norm (10) details the specific approach that should be taken concerning the monitoring, identification, and treatment of TB in Mexico. Furthermore, in 2009 Chiapas included a pledge in their constitution to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, including Goal 6, which specifically refers to TB. These developments create the appearance of political will, however, the failings identified by human rights organizations show that in practice, neither national nor international standards are not being met (8).

A number of specific TB cases in Chiapas are presently being used to highlight human rights abuses resulting from failures in healthcare provision, that under international law, Mexico is legally bound to address. Patients failed to recieve health related information in which was culturally, linguistically and contextually appropriate; there were unjustified breaches of patient confidentiality; and experianced politicisation, discrimination, stigmatisation, and cultural insensitivity within service provision. The Direct Observed Short Course (DOTS) as advised by the World Health Organisation (11) was poorly implemented, including inappropriate treatment regimes; lack of medications resulting in gaps during treatment; lack of contact tracing; the failure to provide medication to TB contacts and many people had simply been given incorrect diagnosises (8). All these factors have had significant negative impacts upon patients in Chiapas (8). Using the evidence and understanding from these patient cases will allow for the specific failings in the the system to be addressed and bring about broader health improvements to health care in Chiapas

It is important to identify the key factors that resulted in failures of service provision. For example, it is the state’s responsibility to inform national government of medication requirements relating to patients identified as having TB. This has been highlighted as one of the points at which the system has broken down in the specific cases being investigated. This was compounded through inadequate identification of TB cases (5).

Monitoring systems also show major flaws: for example, all of the 145 cases of TB identified in the Los Altos region of Chiapas during 2000 (8) have had their records lost, and subsequently have received no follow-up (personal correspondence between CCESC-DDS, ECOSUR and Chiapas Health Secretary Jurisdiccion Sanitaria No.II). Furthermore, discrepancies between government and independent research indicate that inadequate TB surveillance mechanisms, through lack of identification, are underestimating disease prevalence, and are not identifying patients in need of treatment (5). The situation has resulted from multiple avoidable factors, for which financial support was available but not used. For example, in 2008, 60% of the health budget for Chiapas was simply not used (12) at the same time as medications for TB were not available at a clinical level. Money that should have been used to purchase medication remained unused, and was subsequently returned to central government resulting in a reduction in the consecutive year’s health budget. Such large scale organisational failings clearly have a considerable impact the standard of health attainable for patients, and are subsiquently completely unacceptable.

Effective management of TB can only be achieved through comprehensive, well executed programmes, with a strong grounding in political will (13). The cases presently being highlighted show multiple failings at all levels of health care provision, indicating a lack of the necessary political will. Human rights form the basis of the legal obligations of states to their population, applicable to all persons without discrimination of any kind. In general, governments are aware that poor human rights records are damaging to their position in the international community. International pressure could therefore influence political will in Mexico where it is needed, but this has not been forthcoming.

Organisations in Chiapas have initially analysed the situation from a human rights perspective, and then used this work to address the situation. For example, CCESC-DDS lobbied at the Mexican Congress using the research that had been done, and successfully ensured an audit and review of the TB program in Chiapas. This process is to be followed up by an independent inter-organisational right to health observatory, who will also monitor other important health issues in Chiapas.

The case of TB is used here to highlight human rights violations. Through legal procedures they hope to initiate improvements in the regulation of human rights in Chiapas, which in turn will improve health care provision for all. Many of the issues raised with reference to TB, such as the lack of medicines, lack of staff, and issues of access are equally applicable to other health and civil society issues. These cases have informed various civil society groups about rights-based issues, many of which are now seeking further education in human rights and ways to use these legal frameworks with reference to their own work in Chiapas.


The example of TB in Chiapas highlights multiple failings in the realisation, and direct abuse, of universal human rights to which the indigenous people of Chiapas are entitled. Human rights are inalienable, and it is clear that appropriate steps for their realisation have not been taken in public health delivery. This lack, in particular the right to health, has resulted from complex interactions between social, political, and historical factors. Although these factors have led to the present situation, they do not justify it. Facilitation the achievment of these rights is the duty of the Mexican, and Chiapas state, government. The failures in the realisation of these rights constitute human rights violations, and therefore requires appropriate attention. It is primarily the responsibility of the Mexican government to identify why such abuses came about, and take the required action to improve the functioning of health provision in Chiapas. It falls to them to compensate people who have suffered as a result of previous rights abuses and to enable the realization of human rights for the people of Chiapas. It is also the responsibility of the international community, including the other members of the OECD, to hold Mexico to its human rights obligations. Ignoring the rights abuses in Mexico undermines one of the most important social developments of our times – universal human rights declarations. This article is an example of the practical application of human rights in relation to health, and we encourage other groups and organizations to look at issues from this angle. For more information please see, or email with information about other organizations using a similar approach.

Keir Philip is a fourth year student at the University of Sheffield in the UK

The author would like to acknowledge the help of Marcos Arana, his supervisor during his time in Mexico, in the writing of this paper


CCESC-DDS – Centro de Capacitación en Ecología y Salud para Campesinos-Defensoría del Derecho a la Salud (Center for Training in Ecology and Health for Rural workers- Right to Health Defence Group)

ECOSUR – El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (The College of the Southern Border, an academic research institution)

OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development

WHO – World Health Organisation


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(3) OECD 2009. Economic Survey of Mexico 2009Accessed 15.09.2009 at,3343,en_33873108_33873610_43393781_1_1_1_1,00.html

(4) INEGI, II conteo de Población y Vivienda 2005

(5) PHR (2006). Excluded People, Eroded Communities: Realizing the Right to Health in Chiapas, Mexico accessed 15.09.2009 at

(6) Loranzo R, Zurita B, Franco F, et al (2001). Mexico: Marginality, Need, and Resource Allocation at the Country level. In: Evens T, Whitehead M, Diderichsen F, Bhuiya A, Wirth M (eds). Challenging Inequalities in Health: From Ethics to Action. New York: Oxford University Press. 290-291

(7) Secretaría de Salud 2009 accessed 15.09.2009 at

(8) Nájera-Ortiz JC, Sánchez-Pérez HJ, et al (2008). Demographic, health services and socio-economic factors associated with pulmonary tuberculosis mortality in Los Altos Region of Chiapas, Mexico. International Journal of Epidemiology. 37(4): 786-795

(9) Bruce N, Perez-Padilla R, Albalak R, (2000). Indoor air pollution in developing countries: a major environmental and public health Challenger. Bull World Health Organ. vol.78 no.9 Genebra 2000


(11) WHO 2005. Global Tuberculosis Control: Surveillance, Planning, Financing. WHO Report 2005 (WHO/HTM/TB/2005.49). Geneva: World Health Organization, 2005.

(12) El Financiero en Linea. Viernes 7 de agosto 2009 accessed 15.09.09 at

(13) Maartens G, Wilkinson R, (2007). Tuberculosis. The Lancet; 370: 2030-43 Published on line August 23, 2007 at

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