Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Doctor's World: A Public Health Quandary: When Should the Public Be Told?

The New York Times article: (registration required.)

"It is a classic public health problem: how much information is enough to warn the public about a potential health threat?

"In deciding, health officials must weigh the risks of losing credibility by causing unnecessary alarm against the benefits of releasing timely information to prevent one or a few cases from turning into an outbreak."

The commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was faced by the problem of how to deal with the identification of a man who had drug resistant HIV, was an intravenous drug user, and had hundreds of (untraceable) sex partners. He chose to alert the public via the media to the public health threat. In this case, the decision of a public health physician was probably different than that of a research scientist or research epidemiologist, who would be reluctant to publish results based on a single case. What constitutes “knowledge” may depend on who holds it, and how it is to be used.

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