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Clinical trial practitioners can learn valuable lessons from sensationalist media reporting that followed the collapse of a clinical trial in South Africa in 2007, say Gita Ramjee and colleagues in this PLoS Medicine article.

Ramjee's team were principal investigators on a microbicide trial that was stopped when rates of HIV infection in female participants were found to be higher than with placebo (see Safety concerns halt trials of HIV microbicide NW3393ENG). They faced alarmist and inaccurate media reports (for example, that women were "bought to sleep with HIV-positive men") that raised concern among politicians and communities at other trial sites.

The authors recommend education of the media and community about clinical trials, including regulatory procedures and guidelines, to reduce the likelihood of distortion of information.

Press conferences announcing results should be held in-country, with representatives from the local department of health and ethics committee, as well as the national principal investigator and sponsor, so that journalists can ask questions rather than interpret results themselves.

Other recommendations include regular communication between sponsors, investigators and regulatory bodies, who should also prepare in advance community-friendly communication strategies based on all possible outcomes of a trial.

A major challenge, the authors point out, is informing people that the effectiveness of an intervention can be assessed only by measuring new HIV infections, and that people will become infected regardless of the intervention being tested.

Link to full article in PLoS Medicine