"Typhoid Mary" and "HIV Jane": Responsibility, Agency and Disease Prevention

Kit Yee Chan*, Daniel D. Reidpath

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


The construction of disease risks as knowable, calculable and preventable in dominant social science and public health discourses has fostered a certain kind of logic about individual risk and the responsibility for infection. Disease control measures that have developed out of this logic typically fail to recognise the socio-structural roots of many high-risk behaviours that are linked to the spread of infection. Instead, they hold the disease carrier responsible for managing his/her own risk of infection of others, and rely on constraining the agency of the carrier (e.g. by constraining movement, contact or occupation). In occupations associated with a high risk of infection, the idea of responsibility of the actor implicitly raises issues of "professional responsibility': Using the case of "Typhoid Mary" and a hypothetical case of "HIV Jane", this paper explores some of the problems with making sex workers responsible for the prevention of HIV transmission. It argues that for the notion of "responsibility" to make any sense, the HIV-positive person must be in a position to exercise responsibility, and for this they must have agency.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-50
Number of pages11
JournalReproductive Health Matters
Issue number22
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2003


  • Agency
  • Health policies and programmes
  • HIV transmission (sexual)
  • Infectious diseases
  • Safer sex promotion
  • Sex workers


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