Prof. Kaye Edwards
Sharpless 113 x1191

TA: Moriah McGrath

General description and prerequisites:

This course provides you the opportunity to explore the biological and cultural dimensions of infectious diseases. It examines specific diseases such as leprosy, plague, syphilis, AIDS, and selected others; and analyzes the nature of discrimination against individuals and groups with these diseases. The new version of this course requires a general familiarity with modern biology: an introductory college course (e.g., BIOL HC145, 150 or 200, or BMC101) or AP credit in biology is a prerequisite.

The theme for this multi-disciplinary course is "Border Crossings." Biological boundaries, such as cell membranes and epithelial tissues, help define cells and organisms as distinct biological entities. Certain bacteria and viruses can transgress these boundaries, establishing infections that can challenge a person's health. In addition, socially organized categories, such as gender, race, class, and nationality, help establish boundaries around groups of people, creating cultural and social identities. When infectious diseases spread from individual to individual, people attempt to distance themselves from the threat of the disease by reinforcing those cultural boundaries that mark the infected people as "other," setting the stage for discrimination. Similarly, when people feel economically or culturally threatened by "others," the possibility of contagious diseases is often invoked to justify exclusionary policies.

Class format:

There will be a combination of lectures, videos, large and small group discussions throughout the semester. You will need to use the web for research and for sharing your essays with other students in the class. The last four weeks of the course will consist of student-led classes on selected topics.


The following texts are required; I will place at least one copy of each of these texts on reserve in Magill. Additional readings (chapters from books and journal articles) will be assigned and will be available on reserve.

Overview of Course:

Week 1-2


Week 3-4

The Plague

Week 5-6


Week 7-9


Week 10

Cultural Representations of Infectious Disease

Week 11-14

Student-led Classes


1. Analytical review (2-3 pp) of a relevant book, periodical or web sites, due Jan 29

2. Two 5-8 page essays with necessary documentation examining issues about the biology of infectious diseases and the nature of discrimination.

  1. Biological essays on infectious microbes due Feb 5:
    Select a particular infectious agent and examine some or all of the following dimensions: its ecology, its mode of transmission, its biological nature including virulence factors, its effect on cells, tissues and systems in the body (pathology).
  2. Social justice essays on public health responses to infectious diseases or the threat of infectious diseases due Feb 12:
    Select a specific disease in a particular cultural and historical setting, describe and analyze the effectiveness and social justice of the public health response; analyze the arguments for and against animal to human organ transplants.
  3. Biological or social justice essays on immunization strategies for infectious diseases due Feb 19:
    Analyze a particular aspect of an immunization program in the U.S. or other countries, e.g., smallpox eradication; which is better: the Salk or Sabine polio vaccine?; development and approval of a safer diphtheria (whooping cough) vaccine; revised guidelines for a hepatitis vaccine; religious proscriptions against immunization; who should pay and how much?
  4. Biological or social justice essays on STDs due Feb 26:
    Examine a specific example of how cultural views of sexuality affect medical treatment of a sexually transmitted disease, e.g., an STD as punishment for immoral behavior, prostitution, promiscuity, homophobia, safe sex campaigns, STDs on campus.

    For your second essay, choose one of the following topics:
  5. Social justice essays on poverty, nationalism, social class and infectious diseases due Mar 5:
    Explore a specific instance of how a community's standard of living and its public health infrastructure affect the transmission of an infectious disease or how public policies to restrict immigration and social services threaten public health.
  6. Biological or social justice essays on racial dimensions of infectious diseases due Mar 19:
    Explore a specific instance in which racial prejudice affects the diagnosis, treatment or prevention of an infectious disease; examine a specific infectious disease which disproportionately affects individuals of a particular race.
  7. Biological essays on new diagnostic or therapeutic approaches to microbial infections due Mar 26:
    Examine the data linking infectious agents to diseases such as ulcers, atherosclerosis, or kidney stones; analyze the genetic factors that enhance or inhibit a particular infectious disease, such as cystic fibrosis, cholera, or sickle cell anemia; examine the underlying biological mechanism behind a new anti-bacterial, anti-viral, or anti-parasitic drug.
  8. Biological or social justice essays on AIDS due Apr 2:
    Possible topics include pregnancy and HIV; protease inhibitors; equity issues in drug trials; hemophilia lawsuit and the contaminated blood supply; orphan AIDS project; furor over the origin of AIDS; prostitutes and AIDS; culturally sensitive AIDS education; needle exchange programs; Names project; harm reduction programs.

3. Discussion and critical review of cultural representation of infectious disease:

Small groups of students will choose a particular literary work, a collection of visual images, a film, or a collection of musical works whose theme explores some form of infectious disease. Class time will be set aside for discussions during week 10, and a 3-page critical response will be due Apr 6.

4. Group project:

Early in the semester, students will sign up to research the biology and social justice dimensions of a specific infectious disease outbreak. Each group will be responsible for selecting readings, organizing and leading one class meeting during weeks 11-14. These group-led classes will analyze a particular cultural moment and specific biological parameters of an infectious disease outbreak and will examine the appropriateness of different public health responses. A group portfolio (12-15 pages) will be due the class meeting before the group presentation. Class time throughout the semester will be set aside for group work. Possible areas of investigation include: anthrax and biological warfare; chlamydia and female infertility; cholera in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; prions and Creutzfelt-Jakob Disease; E. coli 0157:H7 and food-borne infections; Ebola virus; Hanta virus; influenza; malaria; mycoplasma and asthma; tuberculosis.

Service learning possibilities:

For those of you who benefit from more experiential learning, community outreach activities can be integrated into the course. For example, your social justice essay could analyze a community service project in which you have participated. If enough students are interested, a group project could be designed to develop and/or implement a specific community service activity providing outreach or education about an infectious disease.

Program in Biology, Medicine, and Society
Library Resource Page
Haverford College

Page created by Kaye Edwards. Last updated 18 Jan 99.