Ethics and international research

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.316.7131.625a (Published 14 February 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:625

Placebo trials are unethical for established, untested treatments

  1. E C O Edi-Osagie, Clinical research fellow, Department of Reproductive Medicine,
  2. N E Edi-Osagie, Specialist registrar, Neonatal Medical Unit
  1. St Mary's Hospital, Manchester M13 0JH
  2. Public Citizen, 1600 20th Street, Washington, DC 20009-1001, USA
  3. Centre Médical Evangelique, Nyankunde, Congo
  4. Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board, Nairobi, Kenya
  5. Clinical Pharmacology Section, Department of Medicine, University of Birmingham, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham B15 2TH
  6. Department of International Health, School of Hygiene and Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 615 North Wolfe Street, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA
  7. Department of Medicine, University Teaching Hospital, PO Box 50110, Lusaka, Zambia
  8. Kara Counselling and Training Trust, Lusaka
  9. Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London WC1E 7HT

    EDITOR—In their editorial Halsey et al defended their placebo controlled trials of effective interventions to prevent maternal-fetal HIV transmission in developing countries.1 Their arguments in defence of these trials are weak. They cite the guidelines of the Council for International Organisations of Medical Sciences, which “call for universal principles of ethical research, not universal standards of medical care.” 1 2 This does not, however, justify their exposing pregnant women with HIV infection to placebo treatment in a trial that also offers appropriate treatment. Although prevailing economic circumstances in developing countries may preclude such women from routinely receiving effective treatment, this is no justification to deny the control arm in the trial of Halsey et al effective treatment because it would act as an undue incentive. We also do not agree with Lurie and Wolfe's counterarguments that studies supported by the American government should provide all participants with the same level of care that is available to Americans.3 Although this suggestion is ethically sound and desirable, it is highly impracticable.

    We believe that any intervention in a research trial that deliberately sets out not to prevent an anticipated deleterious health condition (maternal-fetal HIV transmission in this case) is unethical and goes against the guidelines of the Council for International Organisations of Medical Sciences.2 Examples abound in contemporary medicine of established but untested interventions whose effectiveness cannot now be tested because subjecting people to placebo controlled trials of their effectiveness is considered to be unethical and unacceptable. Lurie and Wolfe's suggestion of comparing the new short course zidovudine regimens against the established ACTG 076 regimen is ethical and statistically sound. Perhaps more appropriate would be a three arm trial, with the new regimens and ACTG 076 making up two arms and the local population of pregnant women infected with …

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