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Soc Sci Med. 2008 Aug;67(3):463-72. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.03.017. Epub 2008 May 24.

Stigma and the ethics of public health: not can we but should we.

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Mailman School of Public Health, Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University, New York, NY 10032, USA.


In the closing decades of the 20th century, a broadly shared view took hold that the stigmatization of those who were already vulnerable provided the context within which diseases spread, exacerbating morbidity and mortality by erecting barriers between caregivers and those who were sick and by imposing obstacles upon those who would intervene to contain the spread of illness. In this view, it was the responsibility of public health officials to counteract stigma if they were to fulfill their mission to protect the communal health. Furthermore, because stigma imposed unfair burdens on those who were already at social disadvantage, the process of stigmatization implicated the human right to dignity. Hence, to the instrumental reason for seeking to extirpate stigma, was added a moral concern. But is it true that stigmatization always represents a threat to public health? Are there occasions when the mobilization of stigma may effectively reduce the prevalence of behaviors linked to disease and death? And if so, how ought we to think about the human rights issues that are involved?

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