Cultural conundrums: the ethics of epidemiology and the problems of population in implementing pre-exposure prophylaxis

Dev World Bioeth. 2015 Apr;15(1):27-39. doi: 10.1111/dewb.12034. Epub 2013 Dec 23.


The impending implementation of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has prompted complicated bioethical and public health ethics concerns regarding the moral distribution of antiretroviral medications (ARVs) to ostensibly healthy populations as a form of HIV prevention when millions of HIV-positive people still lack access to ARVs globally. This manuscript argues that these questions are, in part, concerns over the ethics of the knowledge production practices of epidemiology. Questions of distribution, and their attendant cost-benefit calculations, will rely on a number of presupposed, and therefore, normatively cultural assumptions within the science of epidemiology specifically regarding the ability of epidemiologic surveillance to produce accurate maps of HIV throughout national populations. Specifically, ethical questions around PrEP will focus on who should receive ARVs given the fact that global demand will far exceed supply. Given that sexual transmission is one of the main modes of HIV transmission, these questions of 'who' are inextricably linked to knowledge about sexual personhood. As a result, the ethics of epidemiology, and how the epidemiology of HIV in particular conceives, classifies and constructs sexual populations will become a critical point of reflection and contestation for bioethicists, health activists, physicians, nurses, and researchers in the multi-disciplinary field of global health. This paper examines how cultural conundrums within the fields of bioethics and public health ethics are directly implicated within the ethics of PrEP, by analyzing the problems of population inaugurated by the construction of the men who have sex with men (MSM) epidemiologic category in the specific national context of South Africa.

Keywords: Bioethics; Culture; Ethnography; MSM; Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis; Public Health Ethics; Social Epidemiology; South Africa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Cultural Characteristics*
  • Epidemiology / ethics
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology*
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control*
  • Homosexuality, Male*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals
  • Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis / ethics*
  • Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis / methods
  • Public Health / ethics*
  • Risk
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • Unsafe Sex* / ethics
  • Unsafe Sex* / psychology
  • Unsafe Sex* / statistics & numerical data


  • Anti-HIV Agents