August 1, 2011
ATLANTA - Professor Leslie Wolf delivered the keynote address to open the Public Health Service (PHS) Commissioned Officer Association annual meeting in New Orleans.
The Commissioned Corps is one of seven US uniformed services, headed by the Surgeon General. The Corps is made up of public health professionals, including a variety of clinicians, engineers, environmental specialists, scientists, and researchers, who provide public health leadership and service within federal governments agencies in leadership and direct service programs.
Wolf’s presentation highlighted the important intersecting themes of ethics and public health decision-making. In her presentation, she focused on lessons to be learned from the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the recently discovered post-World War II studies in Guatemala in which PHS researchers infected subjects with syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections, which both present a host of ethical problems.
"We are still dealing with the legacy of Tuskegee in research, in clinical care, and in public health activities, which will only be exacerbated by the revelations from Guatemala." Wolf said. "By making ethics an explicit part of public health decision-making, we can avoid problems that would otherwise undermine our efforts to improve the public’s health."
However, Wolf noted that including ethics in public health decisions will lead to better decisions only if ethics is taken seriously. "In both Tuskegee and Guatemala, there is evidence that the researchers knew there were ethical concerns, but they did not stop the research. There need to be mechanisms to evaluate carefully ethical concerns, regardless of who raises them, and a willingness to stop or change a program if those concerns prove to be valid."
Administrative Coordinator, Center for Law, Health & Society