Managing the public health risk of a 'sex worker' with hepatitis B infection: legal and ethical considerations

Journal of Medical Ethics 37 (10):623-626 (2011)
This paper examines the ethical issues faced by health workers managing a fictional case of a female sex worker who is hepatitis B positive with a high level of virus but is asymptomatic. According to guidelines she does not require treatment herself, but is potentially highly infectious to others. Recent legal cases in the UK show it can be criminal to pass on HIV or hepatitis B infection sexually if the risk is known and the partner has not been informed. However, there is no statute or case law showing that health workers are required to intervene to prevent such a potential ‘crime’, particularly when the partners are unknown, as in this case. The health workers could respond in various ways. They could do nothing, thus making further infection probable. They could advise the sex worker to use condoms and to inform her clients. They could treat the sex worker to reduce her level of infectivity, although there is no benefit to her. They could disclose the sex worker's status, although breaking confidentiality is a serious matter ethically and may be of no benefit to the unknown client group. Regulating prostitution might help; but sex workers with infection may work off licence. This paper discusses the clinical, moral and ethical issues associated with such a scenario and concludes that the most beneficial course is to target clients, through health education, to recognise the potential risks of infection from a sex worker and to take suitable precautions including immunisation against hepatitis B
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DOI 10.1136/jme.2010.041293
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