Among the tools that governments have to influence the health of the population, public health law is a critical one to reduce illness and prevent premature death. Public health law examines the authority of the government at various jurisdictional levels to improve the health of  the general population within societal limits and norms.

Public health staff may encounter various legal and policy decisions during their public health work, including:

  • The need to apply isolation or quarantine measures, in order to reduce public health threats
  • Closing schools and other public gatherings, temporarily or for longer periods in order to limit the spread of communicable diseases
  • The authority to mandate vaccinations for minors or autonomous adults, including health care workers
  • Licensing, credentialing and privileging health practitioners from abroad
  • Inter-disciplinary and inter-departemental management of resources including personnel, vaccines, shelter etc
  • Concerns over liability of public health practitioners during emergencies
  • The need to apply public health measures to contain and control events with potential health impact.

 

Public health law typically has three major areas of practice: police power, disease and injury prevention, and the law of populations.

 

Police Power

These areas perpetuate are employed by governmental agencies. Bioterrorism is a growing focus of this practice area in some jurisdictions, yet also more day to day law enforcement situations such as closing down restaurants or production facilities, giving fines to health care facilities and impounding suspected sources of infections fall under this area. 

A specific part of this area deals with questions of case management of highly infectious individuals: what are the legal possibilities for restricting movement and treatment against the will of the individual? Public Health Doctors that encounter such situations do well to get in touch with public health law experts for guidance.

Disease and Injury Prevention

This broader area of public health law applies legal tools to public health problems associated with disease and injury. Practitioners apply legislation, regulation, litigation (private enforcement), and international law to public health problems using the law as an instrument of public health. Litigation against tobacco companies in the United States provides an excellent example.

Law of Populations

Population-based legal analysis is the theoretical foundation of public health law. The law of populations is a relatively new theoretical framework in jurisprudence that seeks to analyze legal problems using the tools of epidemiology. Population-based legal analysis can be applied to traditional public health problems but also has application in environmental law, zoning, evidence, and complex tort.

 

Communicable Diseases and Law Enforcement

Many countries have specific national laws on the control of communicable diseases. Internationally, there are many regulations that address this topic. The International Health Regulations (2005) offer global regulations concerning people and goods, aimed to reduce spread of 'public health events of international concern'. This IHR is one of the most recent in short history of global international health laws, aimed to reduce global spread of diseases. The EU has adopted a specific set of regulations, addressing communicable disease prevention and control in the European Union.

 

 

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References

1. Public Health Law, Wikipedia, accessed 28 January 2011.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Law Program

3. The network for public health law