Ethics and infectious disease

Bioethics. 2005 Jun;19(3):272-89. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2005.00441.x.


Bioethics apparently suffers from a misdistribution of research resources analogous to the '10/90' divide in medical research. Though infectious disease should be recognized as a topic of primary importance for bioethics, the general topic of infectious disease has received relatively little attention from the discipline of bioethics in comparison with things like abortion, euthanasia, genetics, cloning, stem cell research, and so on. The fact that the historical and potential future consequences of infectious diseases are almost unrivalled is one reason that the topic of infectious disease warrants more attention from bioethicists. The 'Black Death' eliminated one third of the European population during the 14th Century; the 1989 flu killed between 20 and 100 million people; and, in the 20th Century smallpox killed perhaps three times more people than all the wars of that period. In the contemporary world, epidemics (AIDS, multi-drug resistant turberculosis, and newly emerging infectious diseases such as SARS) continue to have dramatic consequences. A second reason why the topic of infectious disease deserves further attention is that it raises difficult ethical questions of its own. While infected individuals can threaten the health of other individuals and society as a whole, for example, public health care measures such as surveillance, isolation, and quarantine can require the infringement of widely accepted basic human rights and liberties. An important and difficult ethical question asks how to strike a balance between the utilitarian aim of promoting public health, on the one hand, and libertarian aims of protecting privacy and freedom of movement, on the other, in contexts involving diseases that are--to varying degrees--contagious, deadly, or otherwise dangerous. Third, since their burden is most heavily shouldered by the poor (in developing countries), infectious diseases involve issues of justice--which should be a central concern of ethics. I conclude by providing sociological and historical explanations of why the topic of infectious disease has not already received more attention from bioethicists.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Bioethical Issues
  • Bioethics* / history
  • Communicable Disease Control* / methods
  • Communicable Diseases* / history
  • Communicable Diseases* / mortality
  • Developing Countries
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Ethics, Research
  • Forecasting
  • Health Priorities / ethics*
  • Health Services Accessibility / economics
  • Health Services Accessibility / ethics
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Medieval
  • Human Rights
  • Humans
  • Politics
  • Social Justice*
  • Tuberculosis / epidemiology