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Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health

Together for more healthy years
Research Justice


It is widely acknowledged that large socio-economic health inequalities exist, both within and between countries. Major contributors to these health inequalities are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. While there is broad consensus that these differences in health are unfair, there is a lack of understanding, knowledge and insight into how they can best be addressed by governments and the broader society.

Prominent theme

Aletta Jacobs, a true fighter for equal rights herself, inspires us to strive for justice in health. Through our multidisciplinary research agenda, we aim to foster healthy ageing and to address inequities in health.

Watch here Justice coordinator Brigit Toebes sharing her vision.

Understanding socio-economic inequalities

The roots of health inequalities can be traced back to a very early stage in life, even before birth. Growing literature documents that circumstances in the foetal period, infancy and childhood have a long-term effect on health. Yet, we still know very little about the causal pathways through which early-life disadvantages influence health later in life and how governments and society should intervene to stop the transmission of inequality. For the Netherlands, we can provide new scientific evidence on the pathways leading to health inequalities by exploiting the exceptional richness of the Dutch administrative data, which cover the entire population, and of Lifelines, a unique cohort study and biobank covering over 167,000 participants living in the northern Netherlands.

A call for justice and human rights in health

Human rights standards feature as the central reference point in the justice section of the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health. Human rights, including the right to health, place the individual at the centre of the analysis and debate, and emphasise the need for protecting the individual’s dignity and health at each stage of the life cycle. As such, human rights are all about enhancing the capability of the individual, and about identifying the role of government and society in creating justice in health.

What is the law’s role in tackling health inequalities?

From both an academic and a policy perspective, the challenge is to design regulations and other interventions to stop the intergenerational transmission of inequality. To find out how law can best respond to health inequalities, the interaction with other health-related disciplines is crucial. The Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health is the perfect platform for this interaction. An important role of the legal researchers will be to translate specific scientific evidence of health inequalities into concrete law and policy recommendations for governments and other actors to adopt.


List of studies that – in relation to this theme – have already been done.

  • Brigit Toebes and Karien Stronks, ‘Closing the Gap: a Human Rights Approach towards Social Determinants of Health’, European Journal of Health Law, 2016, 23(5), 510-524.
  • Viola Angelini, Dan Howdon and Jochen MIerau, ‘ Childhood socio-economic status and late- adulthood mental health: results from the Survey on Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe’, Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Social Sciences, 2018, forthcoming.

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