Personal Health is Public Health

In Arguing About Bioethics, L.O. Gostin argues that, in terms of public health, government laws take precedence over people’s individual liberties in the event of a “public health emergency” (Gostin 377). He defines a public health emergency as an “occurrence of imminent threat of an illness or health condition caused by bioterrorism or a novel or previously controlled or eradicated infectious agent or biological toxin” (377). The health threat also causes many people to have major disabilities or even die. However, why should we let an emergency happen? Aren’t there steps that we can take in order to avoid the possibility of emergency as best as we can? While preventative medicine is definitely an admirable option, we can take even smaller steps and put public health into our own hands by altering our health habits and behaviors.

The concept of public health emergencies made me think of the movie, Contagion (here is the movie trailer: In this movie, a lethal virus spreads extremely quickly and, soon enough, becomes a pandemic. The virus spreads so rapidly because people do not wash their hands, people touch their faces so many times per day, people don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze, and don’t participate in other sanitary behaviors. Everywhere we go we touch something that someone else has touched and we do not know if that person is sick or not. So, from this movie, we realize that people need to take responsibility for their health behaviors to protect themselves and the public.

While there are laws that override people’s individual liberties in a public health emergency, there are no laws that demand people to wash their hands or not touch their face. Obviously, there never will be. However, in order to avoid a public health emergency, we should focus not only on preventative medicine like vaccines, but alterations of our personal health habits and behaviors. Though we may believe that our personal health behaviors simply benefit us, we are actually benefitting the rest of the public. When a person gets sick, it is very likely that his or her family member or friend will get sick too. People touch the same things and live in close quarters so it is very likely that a virus can be transmitted. Therefore, people need to be responsible and take care of themselves because it is healthy for them and the rest of the public.

Though we may view health in terms of “public health,” it is very important that we do not undermine the power of the individual’s own choices. Again, there will never be laws that demand washing your hands every time we go to the bathroom. But, we should take into account that the doorknob of the bathroom will not have as many germs on it because we washed our hands, so then other people will not get our germs. Small decisions can prevent large outcomes that we would want to avoid. Therefore, rather than focusing on the preparation for a public health emergency, or even focusing on preventative medicine, we should focus on our behaviors that will increase the likelihood that we will stay healthy.

Works Cited

Gostin, L.O. “Public Health Law in an Age of Terrorism: Rethinking Individual Rights
and Common Goods.” Arguing about bioethics. London: Routledge, 2012. 374-
384. Print.

6 thoughts on “Personal Health is Public Health

  1. I believe that there are steps to ensure that emergency situations do not occur. As stated in the blog post, I agree that smaller steps can be taken into our hands by altering our habits. The responsibility first falls on the individual to change their own personal lifestyle and then if they have no control over the situation should then they should seek help. Each person has their own personal duty to take care of themselves to ensure that they are not causing harm to others. In the instance where people did not wash their hands or take care of themselves well enough to protect others, they were doing a public disservice. It is unrealistic to think that everyone will make sure that the correct steps get done so they don’t spread a disease. However, each person can try their best to prevent their actions from affecting others as much. A lot can be done simply by washing your hands, and many people disregard this, but it is very effective. Certain public health emergencies are unavoidable and are difficult to predict even if people are taking the correct precautions. However, I do think that we should still concentrate on preventative medicine in order to be prepared fully. Even if we count on people taking full responsibility for their actions and thinking about the public as a whole, we should still account for the fact that there are those that will not take these precautions and we can’t exactly change this choice.

  2. I like this! I think its crucial to think about, educate about and engage in these kinds of preventive measures to address public health emergencies even before they happen. Granted, I don’t think it’s possible to use personal behavior as a means of thwarting all potential public health emergencies, but it can definitely be useful against some, such as the example of the flu that you give.
    Everyday I am shocked and disgusted by the number of people I see walk out of the bathroom without washing their hands. I don’t understand. It’s both incredibly simple and effective in preventing the spread of germs and thus disease. I personally would not argue against mandated hand washing. Yes, like you said, there will never be a law that requires you to wash your hands, but there shouldn’t have to be. It’s stupid that so many people don’t.
    Not only is it important for people to adjust their own personal behavior to better attend to public health, but I think its important for institutional precautions to be made too. We see some improvement in this regards in the case of public bathrooms that are now frequently equipped with motion censored faucets, soap dispensers and paper towel dispensers (which I assume are installed with the intention of reducing the opportunities for germ transfer). The one thing that kills me though, that really, really drives me crazy, is why go through the trouble of installing all of these things if you’re going to then install a door that requires me to grab a handle to exit the bathroom. You need to install a door that I can push open with my hip or shoulder and not have to grab a handle that is covered in germs (right after I washed my hands) and pull open. It drives me insane. How do you not think of this when installing bathroom doors? Pull it open to go in, push it open to go out. Or! Even better, a door you can push open both ways!

  3. This is an interesting point, and kind of scary to think about. Preventive medicine is such a broad topic; I think that many things could be considered preventative measures. It’s a field in which there is much room for growth. Part of it is simply raising awareness, and an effort to make people care or understand the impact they can have on their own health and the health of others. This goes for your example of the flu, but also for many other diseases that result from personal choices. Tobacco is the number 1 avoidable cause of death. Smoking is a personal choice. In the past few decades, smoking has become significantly less prevalent due to the efforts in research, education and even laws. Protecting the health of the public is truly a group effort. It takes the cooperation of both the government and the population. By not making every health concern a legal matter (under the control of the government), we are essentially trusting that the majority of people will do what is “right” or best for the population. We are assuming that people will act in a utilitarian way. Hand washing is one of those things. Unless significant evidence of the detrimental effects failing to wash your hands are uncovered, and a plausible way to enforce hand-washing is found, I agree that this preventative measure is in the hands of each individual and cannot be made a law.

  4. Your argument of protecting public health by protecting your own is very interesting because it doesn’t seem overbearingly paternalistic. People always want to ensure that they are safe, and by ensuring their safety they can’t help but ensure the safety of others. Perhaps phrasing the argument this way will influence people to contribute to public health safety. However, people could also get into the mindset that everyone else is (even though everyone is obviously not, nor will everyone ever be) healthy. They will thus ignore precautionary measures such as touching a seemingly clean handrail and immediately touching their face. They will then more likely get sick and further perpetuate sickness.

  5. I agree with your argument that public health is comprised of individual choices. The examples presented are all very valid and prevalent in everyday life. It is true that there can never be laws enforcing hand washing, because law-enforcers cannot watch each person’s every move. This concept is similar to the one of libertarian paternalism, because the right approach is encouraged, however not forced upon the individual. Also, the free-rider concept is relevant, because sometimes individuals believe if everyone else is washing their hands then they are not susceptible to diseases anyways. Flawed logic as such leads free-riders to not wash their hands and ultimately hurt the public by the passing of their germs. Unfortunately, there is truly no way to guarantee that every individual is hygienic, so in my opinion the best way to approach this is by making sure the general public is aware of the consequences of non-hygienic behavior. If media coverage included information about possible epidemics, perhaps individuals could stop acting as free-riders. In my experience, knowing a disease is currently spreading motivates me to take better care of my health, so I think media coverage could encourage proper sanitary behaviors.

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