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ABSTRACT

This paper examines the characteristics of infectious diseases that raise special medical and social ethical issues, and explores ways of integrating both current bioethical and classical public health ethics concerns. Many of the ethical issues raised by infectious diseases are related to these diseases’ powerful ability to engender fear in individuals and panic in populations. We address the association of some infectious diseases with high morbidity and mortality rates, the sense that infectious diseases are caused by invasion or attack on humans by foreign micro-organisms, the acute onset and rapid course of many infectious diseases, and, in particular, the communicability of infectious diseases. The individual fear and community panic associated with infectious diseases often leads to rapid, emotionally driven decision making about public health policies needed to protect the community that may be in conflict with current bioethical principles regarding the care of individual patients. The discussion includes recent examples where dialogue between public health practitioners and medical-ethicists has helped resolve ethical issues that require us to consider the infected patient as both a victim with individual needs and rights and as a potential vector of disease that is of concern to the community.