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Am J Public Health. 1992 Aug;82(8):1158-64.

HIV prevention and the two faces of partner notification.

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  • 1Columbia University School of Public Health.


In the cases of medical patients with sexually transmitted diseases (particularly those with the human immunodeficiency virus), two distinct approaches exist to notifying sexual and/or needle-sharing partners of possible risk. Each approach has its own history (including unique practical problems of implementation) and provokes its own ethical dilemmas. The first approach--the moral "duty to warn"--arose out of clinical situations in which a physician knew the identity of a person deemed to be at risk. The second approach--that of contact tracing--emerged from sexually transmitted disease control programs in which the clinician typically did not know the identity of those who might have been exposed. Confusion between the two approaches has led many to mistake processes that are fundamentally voluntary as mandatory and those that respect confidentiality as invasive of privacy. In the context of the AIDS epidemic and the vicissitudes of the two approaches, we describe the complex problems of partner notification and underscore the ethical and political contexts within which policy decisions have been made.

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