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Ethics goes viral: A presentation by Robert Siegel

Robert Siegel, MD, PhD, addressing the Stanford Ethics at Noon Seminar, 22 April 2011

Although incredibly tiny, viruses have cast an enormous shadow on human history. Viral diseases disrupted some societies so tremendously, that people came to think of them as gods (registration required).

Viruses infect us by exploiting our most intimate human behaviors, from eating to sex, sometimes with life-or-death consequences. That's why medical school immunologist Robert Siegel, MD, PhD, says the way humans deal with viruses raise questions about right and wrong.

Last Friday, Siegel gave an invited talk on ethics in human virology during the long-running Stanford Ethics at Noon public seminar. He emphasized that many of those dilemmas don't have such clear-cut solutions.

For example, probably the biggest victory in humanity's fight against viral diseases, the smallpox vaccine, came from a risky experiment: Physician Edward Jenner deliberately infected a child with the deadly virus, not knowing whether the vaccine would protect him. Yet, that one experiment probably saved more lives than any other in the history of medicine.

Siegel spoke with enthusiasm and at a rapid pace. Still, in an hour he could only provide us with a glimpse of the long list of moral issues that have emerged in humanity's long struggle against viruses.

For more information about the talk, head over to the Ethics at Noon website, where you can read student-written responses to Siegel's talk, which they will post over the next week.

Photo by Keith Rozendal

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