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AIDS research in developing countries: do the ends justify the means?

Peter A. Clark

Med Sci Monit 2002; 8(9): ED5-16

ID: 13257

Concrete ethical standards for human research are clearly stipulated in both international and national codes of ethics, and are meant to protect human subjects, especially the most vulnerable. A recent clinical study conducted from 1994 to 1997 by Dr. Thomas C, Quinn, M.D. has fueled the debate raging in the scientific community regarding the ethics of clinical AIDS research in developing countries. Quinn's conducted a community-based, randomized, controlled study of 15,127 rural Ugandans to determine whether intermittent antibiotic treatment to reduce the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases would also reduce the rate of HIV transmission. Subsequently, the study identified 415 couples in which one partner was HIV positive and one was initially HIV negative and followed them prospectively for up to 30 months. Researchers were not permitted to inform the seronegative partner of the HIV status of the other partner. As a result, 90 of the initially HIV negative partners (21.7%) seroconverted during a follow-up period of 30 months. To allow for research studies in developing countries that are not permitted in the United States appears to make the Third World equivalent to a 'research sweat shop'. Developing nations offer easy access to patients, reduced costs, and less stringent regulations. This appears to create a double standard for medical research that is both ethically and humanly unacceptable, especially when other viable option exist. To allow relativism to seep into the international and national ethical standards will open the door to an idea that condones the possible abuse of those least able to protect themselves. Researchers have an ethical responsibility to uphold the integrity of these ethical standards. Failure to do so today may have a devastating impact on humanity in the future.

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