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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Ethical issues evolving from patients’ perspectives on compulsory screening for syphilis and voluntary screening for cervical cancer in Kenya

Dickens S Omondi Aduda1* and Nhlanhla Mkhize2

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health, Maseno University, Maseno, Kenya

2 School of Psychology, University of KwaZulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:27  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-27

Published: 28 March 2014



Public health aims to provide universal safety and progressive opportunities to populations to realise their highest level of health through prevention of disease, its progression or transmission. Screening asymptomatic individuals to detect early unapparent conditions is an important public health intervention strategy. It may be designed to be compulsory or voluntary depending on the epidemiological characteristics of the disease. Integrated screening, including for both syphilis and cancer of the cervix, is a core component of the national reproductive health program in Kenya. Screening for syphilis is compulsory while it is voluntary for cervical cancer. Participants’ perspectives of either form of screening approach provide the necessary contextual information that clarifies mundane community concerns.


Focus group discussions with female clients screened for syphilis and cancer of the cervix were conducted to elicit their perspectives of compulsory and voluntary screening. The discussions were audiotaped, transcribed and thematic content analysis performed manually to explore emerging ethics issues.


The results indicate that real ethical challenges exist in either of the approaches. Also, participants were more concerned about the benefits of the procedure and whether their dignity is respected than the compulsoriness of screening per se. The implication is for the policy makers to clarify in the guidelines how to manage ethical challenges, while at the operational level, providers need to be judicious to minimize potential harms participants and families when screening for disease in women.


The context for mounting screening as a public health intervention and attendant ethical issues may be more complex than hitherto perceived. Interpreting emerging ethics issues in screening requires more nuanced considerations of individuals’ contextual experiences since these may be contradictory to the policy position. In considering mounting screening for Syphilis and cervical cancer as a public heal intervention, the community interests and perspectives should be inculcated into the program. Population lack of information on procedures may influence adversely the demand for screening services by the individuals at risk or the community as a collective agent.

Ethics; Public health; Compulsory screening; Voluntary screening; Participants’ perspectives; Syphilis; Cervical cancer