We all have a complicated relationship with medical research. We know that every effective treatment or therapy that exists was once an experimental treatment or therapy. We know that some drugs have been so effective that they eradicated various diseases completely, and we also know that someone had to be the first one to try all those new drugs. On the other hand, most new drugs don’t work out. Some are simply not effective, some are effective but have serious side effects that make them all but useless, and others turn out to be deadly.
Medical research is plagued with problems related to consent, coercion, therapeutic misconception, benefit, and access. All these problems exist in North America and Europe with both well educated, affluent populations and with so-called “vulnerable” populations.
Informed consent is an example. Virtually everyone agrees that patients who participate in medical research should know about and agree to their own participation. Ethics committees, lawyers, and bioethicists have gone to great pains to develop procedures for proper informed consent procedures. Sadly, too many people talk to their doctors about treatment options, hear about ongoing research, and sign consent forms without actually realizing they have agreed to participate in a medical experiment. Despite the best intentions of everyone involved, patients believe they are receiving treatment that is expected to help them (therapeutic misconception).
I sometimes use the HBO film adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play, W;t, in my classes. The main character in the play agrees to experimental treatment, is informed of the side effects and goals of the research, and then goes on to suffer tremendously for her decision. When I have my students write about the movie, more than half of them still believe the doctors were trying to cure the cancer of the main character. Despite all the frank discussions of the research, they still don’t understand that the protagonist was never expected to benefit from the treatments she was receiving. Furthermore, the character never seemed to fully realize that her participation was never expected to benefit her in any way.
If these kinds of misunderstandings happen between researchers and research participants from the same culture speaking the same language, the problems are sure to be compounded by cross-cultural communication. In her book, The Experiment Must Continue: Medical Research and Ethics in East Africa 1940 – 2014,Melissa Graboyes explores ethical challenges and lapses in numerous studies conducted in East Africa. Her book is a refreshing attempt to shed “conventional wisdom” about research in Africa.
For example, I think anyone who has studied research ethics has heard that African chiefs would sometimes provide consent for all the people in a village to participate in research projects. Graboyes says she could find no evidence that anyone in any of the locations under study ever recognized the right of anyone to give collective consent for a group of people. Further, many describe African research participants as “vulnerable” populations with little to no agency. In the sense that many people lack adequate medical care, they are vulnerable, but Graboyes challenges the notion that they lack agency and gives several examples of Africans responding actively and rationally to both exploitative research and beneficial research. In short, she shows that they are actually persons with wills, minds, autonomy, and awareness.
Another common theme for those studying research ethics is the use of coercion to get people to enroll in trials. Many wring their hands worrying over whether offering payment or gifts might unduly coerce potential participants whose desperate poverty might drive them to enroll. Those who did enroll, however, were more concerned about inadequate compensation than undue coercion. Participants realized that others would benefit from research carried out on their bodies or in their homes. In exchange for participating, they felt some reasonable benefit was due, whether it be in the form of cash, medicine, or health services.
One possible benefit, of course, is access to medicines researchers commonly advertise that participants will receive a new treatment at no charge. Many African participants assumed they were trading their blood for research and in turn would receive medicines that would benefit them. In some cases, participants did receive helpful medications, but those medicines were then withheld from them at the end of research, even if it proved to be effective. Researchers say it isn’t their responsibility to provide the medications, which may or may not be expensive, but leaving people with the knowledge that an effective treatment exists without making one available seems to me to be a particularly cruel kind of harm
In the United States, people also expect access to new medications. When people find they have a terminal illness, they will often (I want to say usually) demand to receive experimental medicines. In the 1980s, AIDS activists in the US demanded that experimental treatments be distributed to HIV-positive individuals, and demands for quick approval for experimental drugs have become routine. In this sense, medical research may be a victim of its own success. Most people in either America or Africa fail to appreciate the risk they take with unproven medicines.
Although many researchers view Africa as a fertile field for research (many describe Africans and “walking pathological museums) for the abundance of diseases present and for the relative low costs involved compared to research conducted in Europe and North American. Graboyes describes both successes and failures in East Africa, but the failures can be depressing. In some cases the research never got off the ground, in some it never produces usable results, and in some it made conditions much worse.
Is it unethical to conduct research in Africa? Graboyes doesn’t think it is necessarily unethical to conduct research in East Africa, but she does feel some of the research has been unethical, some simply misguided, and some poorly designed. Many Africans do not trust researchers, which is frustrating to researchers who feel they are on a noble quest to end disease, but many of them fail to realize how many researchers have told outright and deliberate lies in East Africa. People do not forget so easily.
I don’t want to give away too many details of the book, as it can become something of a page-turner. One last thing I will mention, though, is the fact that Graboyes was aware that she was another researcher visiting East Africa asking for cooperation. Although she wasn’t taking blood, spraying insecticides, or injecting treatments, she still needed to ensure that she was proceeding ethically and had the trust of the people she was interviewing. Her efforts are admirable but remind us that any reporting of facts is a matter of interpretation and may be subject to modification.
This book is admirable and compelling, especially for those interested in the ethics of international research. In addition, her insights might help to develop better ethical practices for domestic research, as many of the issues are the same.