Law as a Structural Factor in the Spread of Communicable Disease

Scott Burris

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Houston Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 5, 1999

Infectious disease is once again being recognized in the developed world as a major public health threat. This essay draws on the epidemiological literature addressing the causes of illness in the social and physical environment to argue that infectious diseases are themselves symptomatic of deeper maladies. On this structural view, infectious disease is merely yet another mechanism by which social and material inequality takes a disproportionate toll on the relatively poor within countries and across the world. Law may be said to play four distinct roles in the persistence of infectious disease:

1) Law governs and protects the possession and transfer of wealth and goods;
2) Law endows (or fails to endow) individuals with rights that equip them to avoid disease;
3) Law regulates the meaning of identities and behaviors, categorizing some as favored and others as disfavored; and
4) Law provides settings (legislatures, bureaucracies, courts) in which important social issues are debated, and a vocabulary for debating them.

Better addressing the legal factors that contribute to population vulnerability to or immunity from infectious disease requires a cross-disciplinary effort to address at least four basic questions:

1) What legal structures can plausibly be linked to infectious diseases in the population?
2) Through what mechanisms do legal structures matter and how can public health advocates effectively intervene?
3) How may public health advocates effectively make the case for intervention in a culture unfamiliar with structural analyses?
4) How may the success of structural changes in complex social processes be measured?

Number of Pages in PDF File: 32

JEL Classification: I18

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Date posted: May 10, 2000 ; Last revised: July 14, 2008

Suggested Citation

Burris, Scott, Law as a Structural Factor in the Spread of Communicable Disease. Houston Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 5, 1999. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=223454

Contact Information

Scott C. Burris (Contact Author)
Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )
1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-6576 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.temple.edu/lawschool/phrhcs/index.html
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