Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Epidemiological Ethics

Recent findings have lead lab scientists, epidemiologists, and historians to conclude that Gaëtan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant, famed for being considered "patient zero" of the HIV epidemic in North America, was actually not "patient zero." For a lot of people reading the news, particularly young people who were not alive during the initial part of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we might think "So, what?"

In a recent NYTimes article, Donald McNeil discusses a few more well known patient zeros - from our history, like Mary Mallon or Thyphoid Mary, and present day patient zeros like the toddler in Guinea who was likely the first case of Ebola in the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak. McNeil presents a differences in how some camps think of patient zeros. He says that the ethicists say patient zeros are, first and foremost, patients and their privacy should be respected as much as the privacy of patient 400 is respected. Epidemiologists, on the other hand, McNeil claims, want to emphasize and prioritize the identification of patient zero because understanding how patient zero became infected and spread the disease is important to saving lives. This conversation is an important one to have, especially in a world of many emerging infectious diseases where right to movement and patient privacy are being actively debated. Do quarantines violate human rights? Should patient data be kept private when that information could help save lives? How does the identity (racial, sexual orientation, gender, behavior, etc.) play into the labels that are attributed to patient zeros or potentially positive patients?

Carolyn Oliver

McNeil Jr., Donald G. October 29 2016. NYTIMES. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/sunday-review/the-ethics-of-hunting-down-patient-zero.html
Gaëtan Dugas: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ga%C3%ABtan_Dugas
Image: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/wmra/files/201205/patient_zero.jpg

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