[LUSAKA] Zambia is to set up an independent national committee to monitor the ethics of health research, and to protect the rights, health and safety of participants in clinical trials of potential drugs.
Announcing the plans at the opening of the national health research conference in Lusaka last month (January 20-22), Zambia's health minister Brian Chituwo said that for some health studies undertaken in Zambia, researchers have been able to avoid assessment of research ethics.
The committee, to be set up this year, will be made up of both scientists and non-scientists, whose appointment will be decided by the ministry of justice. It will review the ethics of all research undertaken in the country.
According to the Chituwo, research should be guided by some fundamental moral commitments: the sustainable improvement in human welfare through the expansion of scientific knowledge, the understanding of disease patterns and changing human conditions and the protection of health and dignity of research trial participants.
He expressed concern at the inadequate coverage of research ethics in the basic training of medical students and other health providers, and appealed to the institutions responsible to remedy this situation.
Scientists at the conference welcomed the decision to set up an independent committee, which could replace two existing ethics review committees at the University of Zambia and at the Tropical Disease Research Centre. These operate according to the guidelines and procedures of the institutions they are based at.
The ministry of justice will decide whether the new committee will supplant the existing ones entirely — which would mean disbanding them — or whether they will operate in parallel.
The creation of the new committee is timely, says Joseph Mtetwa, head of health systems research at the Tropical Disease Research Centre. He told SciDev.Net that, "fabrication, falsification and plagiarism of data in health research is rampant in Zambia," but did not want to give any examples for fear of victimisation.
He said the ethics committee should be free from political interference and conflict of interest, and should provide independent, competent and timely review of proposed studies.
Mtetwa also said the committee should ensure that research goals, no matter how important, are never allowed to override the health and wellbeing of research participants. Misconduct observed by the ethics committee, he added, should result in a fine or discontinuation of the project, and if necessary, the researchers involved should be forbidden from conducting further studies.