Ethics of pursuing targets in public health: the case of voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV-prevention programs in Kenya

J Med Ethics. 2020 Nov 4;medethics-2020-106293. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106293. Online ahead of print.


The use of targets to direct public health programmes, particularly in global initiatives, has become widely accepted and commonplace. This paper is an ethical analysis of the utilisation of targets in global public health using our fieldwork on and experiences with voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) initiatives in Kenya. Among the many countries involved in VMMC for HIV prevention, Kenya is considered a success story, its programmes having medically circumcised nearly 2 million men since 2007. We describe ethically problematic practices in Kenyan VMMC programmes revealed by our fieldwork, how the problems are related to the pursuit of targets and discuss possible approaches to their management. Although the establishment and pursuit of targets in public health can have many benefits, assessments of target-driven programmes tend to focus on quantifiable outcomes rather than the processes by which the outcomes are obtained. However, in order to speak more robustly about programmatic 'success', and to maintain community trust, it is vital to ethically evaluate how a public health initiative is actually implemented in the pursuit of its targets.

Keywords: HIV infection and AIDS; circumcision; ethics; public health ethics.