Close-up image of a single pharmaceutical caplet.

Infectious Disease Ethics 6(2)

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Volume 6, Number 2 (June 2009)
Guest Editors: Michael J. Selgelid, Angela R. McLean, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, and Julian Savulescu


Infectious Disease Ethics: Limiting Liberty in Contexts of Contagion

Michael J. Selgelid, Angela R. McLean, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, and Julian Savulescu

Recent Developments

Recent Developments in Law

Cameron Stewart

Special Issue

Moral Principles for Allocating Scarce Medical Resources in an Influenza Pandemic

Marcel Verweij
One of the societal problems in a new influenza pandemic will be how to use the scarce medical resources that are available for prevention and treatment, and what medical, epidemiological and ethical justifications can be given for the choices that have to be made. Many things may become scarce: personal protective equipment, antiviral drugs, hospital beds, mechanical ventilation, vaccination, etc. In this paper I discuss two general ethical principles for priority setting (utility and equity) and explain how these principles will often point in diverging directions. Moreover, each of these principles can be understood in different, again often competing, ways. Notwithstanding these controversies and conflicts, in the context of pandemic response there are at least some points of convergence: several policies can be justified by appeal to different ethical principles and theories. Convergence may be found with respect to a focus on saving the most lives (instead of other aggregative accounts); giving priority antiviral prophylaxis and therapy for life-saving pandemic responders; and, partly depending on epidemiology of the pandemic, to prioritise vaccination of children. Although decision-making about access to intensive care will involve choices with immediate tragic implications, the ethical complexity of these choices is relatively modest (although decisions will not be easy): there are persuasive moral reasons for giving priority to patients who are expected to benefit most within the shortest time. Finally, in the last section I tentatively argue that constraints on people’s freedom, as necessary for an effective public health approach, may support giving somewhat more weight to saving the most lives, than to concerns of equity.

Effective Use of a Limited Antiviral Stockpile for Pandemic Influenza

Nimalan Arinaminpathy, Julian Savulescu, and Angela R. Mclean
Just allocation of resources for control of infectious diseases can be profoundly influenced by the dynamics of those diseases. In this paper we discuss the use of antiviral drugs for treatment of pandemic influenza. While the primary effect of such drugs is to alleviate and shorten the duration of symptoms for treated individuals, they can have a secondary effect of reducing transmission in the community. However, existing stockpiles may be insufficient for all clinical cases. Here we use simple mathematical models to present scenarios where the optimum policies to minimise morbidity and mortality, with a limited drug stockpile, are not always the most intuitively obvious and may conflict with theories of justice. We discuss ethical implications of these findings.

Do Physicians’ Legal Duties to Patients Conflict With Public Health Values? The Case of Antibiotic Overprescription

Carl H. Coleman
Among the many explanations for antibiotic overprescription, some doctors cite the risk of malpractice liability if they deny a patient’s request for an antibiotic and the patient’s condition worsens. In this paper, I examine the merits of this concern—i.e., whether physicians could, in fact, face malpractice liability for refusing to prescribe an antibiotic when, from a public health perspective, the use of the antibiotic would be considered inappropriate. I conclude that the potential for liability cannot be dismissed entirely, but the risk is remote—even in cases where there is a chance that the antibiotic might have benefited the patient.

Syndromic Surveillance and Patients as Victims and Vectors

Leslie P. Francis, Margaret P. Battin, Jay Jacobson, and Charles Smith
Syndromic surveillance uses new ways of gathering data to identify possible disease outbreaks. Because syndromic surveillance can be implemented to detect patterns before diseases are even identified, it poses novel problems for informed consent, patient privacy and confidentiality, and risks of stigmatization. This paper analyzes these ethical issues from the viewpoint of the patient as victim and vector. It concludes by pointing out that the new International Health Regulations fail to take full account of the ethical challenges raised by syndromic surveillance.

Should Persons Detained During Public Health Crises Receive Compensation?

Søren Holm
One of the ways in which public health officials control outbreaks of epidemic disease is by attempting to control the situations in which the infectious agent can spread. This may include isolation of infected persons, quarantine of persons who may be infected and detention of persons who are present in or have entered premises where infected persons are being treated. Most who have analysed such measures think that the restrictions in liberty they entail and the detriments in welfare they impose can be justified and this paper proceeds from the assumption that detention measures are justifiable in some circumstances. Such measures are often implemented without any compensation being given to the persons who are detained. This raises the question: What do we owe to those whose liberty is justifiably restricted (e.g. through isolation, quarantine or detention) as a public health measure during a public health emergency? More specifically, do we owe them compensation for any losses they experience? The paper falls in four main sections. The first section provides examples of the current regulatory state of affairs from the US, Canada and WHO. The second section lays out the liberal, welfarist and pragmatic arguments for providing compensation. The third section discusses the arguments against compensation and the fourth and final section provides the conclusion. It is argued that the arguments for providing compensation clearly outweigh the counterarguments and that the default public policy therefore should be that compensation is provided.

Your Liberty or Your Life: Reciprocity in the Use of Restrictive Measures in Contexts of Contagion

A. M. Viens, Cécile M. Bensimon, and Ross E. G. Upshur
In this paper, we explore the role of reciprocity in the employment of restrictive measures in contexts of contagion. Reciprocity should be understood as a substantive value that governs the use, level and extent of restrictive measures. We also argue that independent of the role reciprocity plays in the legitimisation the use of restrictive measures, reciprocity can also motivate support and compliance with legitimate restrictive measures. The importance of reciprocity has implications for how restrictive measures should be undertaken when preparing and evaluating public health responses to contagion.

A New Vaccine for Tuberculosis: The Challenges of Development and Deployment

Helen A. Fletcher, Tony Hawkridge, and Helen McShane
Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the world’s leading causes of death due to infection and efforts to control TB would be substantially aided by the availability of an improved TB vaccine. There are currently nine new TB vaccines in clinical development, and the first efficacy trials are due to commence in 2009. There are many complex ethical issues which arise at all stages of TB vaccine development, from the need to conduct trials in developing countries to informed consent and the process of ethical review. While it is important that these issues are discussed, it may also be timely to consider the challenges which may arise if a vaccine in clinical development proves to be highly effective. We examine a number of scenarios where decisions on the deployment of a new TB vaccine may impact on the rights and liberty of the individual.

Increasing Knowledge of HIV Infection Status Through Opt-Out Testing

Harold W. Jaffe
The diagnosis of HIV infection is the point of entry for treatment and prevention services, yet many infected persons in both developed and developing countries remain undiagnosed. To reduce the number of undiagnosed infections, a variety of expanded testing policies have been recommended, including opt-out testing. This testing model assumes that in populations of increased HIV prevalence, voluntary testing should be offered to all patients seen in healthcare settings and performed unless patients specifically decline. While this approach raises ethical issues concerning “voluntariness,” access to care, and stigma, the potential benefits of opt-out testing far outweigh its potential adverse effects.

Challenging the Status Quo

Dominic Wilkinson
Harold Jaffe argues that we should adopt opt-out testing for HIV. There are paternalistic and utilitarian arguments for such an approach. In this commentary I draw attention to some similarities between his arguments and debates about opt-out systems of organ donation. I argue that the status quo bias provides both part of the reason that opt-out approaches work, and an explanation for why such approaches are sometimes resisted.


The Life You Can Save

Christian Barry and Gerhard Øverland

The Patient as Victim and Vector: Ethics and Infectious Disease

Ronald Bayer

International Public Health Policy and Ethics

Angus Dawson

Case Studies

Republication: Treat and Tell?

Dale Symons and Steve Lambert


Adrienne Torda

In That Case: Distributing Scarce Oseltamivir in an Avian Flu Pandemic

Dan Brock