University at Albany

Health Is a Human Right

Kamiar Alaei
Dr. Kamiar Alaei

Being confined for over two years as a political prisoner in Iran’s notorious Evin prison — months of that spent in solitary confinement — could easily break the body, mind and spirit, but Kamiar Alaei lived through that experience and ultimately triumphed over it. Today, he and his brother Dr. Arash Alaei head the University at Albany’s Global Institute for Health and Human Rights (GIHHR), an organization they co-founded in 2012. Through research, education, policy, advocacy, and development, the Institute seeks to advance the understanding and protection of health and human rights in a theoretical, academic, practical, and ethical context — a huge mission with worldwide ramifications.

Born in Kermanshah, Iran, Kamiar and Arash Alaei both became medical doctors. As a young physician, Kamiar saw HIV/AIDS patients face isolation, discrimination, and humiliating social stigma; he was gripped by a desire to change that and make effective treatment available and accessible for all people with HIV/AIDS and to offer much needed social support for them and for their families. That became his purpose. In 1998, Kamiar and Arash began working on HIV/AIDS and later on running what they called “triangular clinics” that provided treatment for patients with HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and drug addiction.

“HIV doesn’t care about borders,” Dr. Alaei says as he describes how the scope of the brothers’ work grew. “We developed the first training in HIV prevention and care for border countries — Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan. Then we had training for visitors from other countries in the region, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And we realized that beyond public health we had to concentrate on global health. I continued my education to learn those global aspects and applications.” It was Kamiar and Arash’s work on the global level at international AIDS conferences that extended their influence in the field and furthered a community-based integrated approach in the field of HIV/AIDS, yet at the same time stirred the ire of the Iranian government. And so, both brothers were jailed. Even while imprisoned, they continued their efforts to train prisoners on HIV/AIDS prevention and other public health-related topics.

“When we were released from prison, we said we have to continue. This is a good cause,” recalls Kamiar. The GIHHR is the shining example of how their fight to improve health worldwide continues and thrives. The Institute focuses on both education and research, taking an interdisciplinary approach to both. For instance, this spring GIHHR teamed with Rockefeller College to launch the College’s new graduate certificate in international health and human rights. The program combines coursework offered at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College and School of Public Health, Albany Law School, Union College Graduate School in Schenectady, New York, and the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health; the goal is to provide a framework for understanding health and human rights as a single-issue area and for advocating that health is a fundamental human right — regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, tradition, or social status.

Pointing to the broad and diverse pool of talent drawn to the GIHHR, Kamiar notes, “We have great experts here at the University and we have brought in experts from all around the world to enrich the Institute. In addition to students from the University at Albany, we have interns from the law school, Albany Medical College and the College of Pharmacy. We have had students from ten universities and eleven countries. At the Institute, we work with global health specialists from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Yale, and human rights experts from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights. Our students are exposed to the top people. We keep the work serious and students feel very engaged and motivated.”

A world in which health is viewed as a fundamental human right is Dr. Kamiar Alaei’s dream, a vision for change that he shares with his brother. Inspiring the next generation to pursue that vision with an innovative spirit is at the heart of his work. Of his students he says, “They are the people who will make it happen.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 Rockefeller College News Magazine.