Familiar ethical issues amplified: how members of research ethics committees describe ethical distinctions between disaster and non-disaster research

BMC Medical Ethics 18 (1):44 (2017)
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The conduct of research in settings affected by disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes is challenging, particularly when infrastructures and resources were already limited pre-disaster. However, since post-disaster research is essential to the improvement of the humanitarian response, it is important that adequate research ethics oversight be available. We aim to answer the following questions: 1) what do research ethics committee members who have reviewed research protocols to be conducted following disasters in low- and middle-income countries perceive as the key ethical concerns associated with disaster research?, and 2) in what ways do REC members understand these concerns to be distinct from those arising in research conducted in non-crisis situations? This qualitative study was developed using interpretative description methodology; 15 interviews were conducted with REC members. Four key ethical issues were identified as presenting distinctive considerations for disaster research to be implemented in LMICs, and were described by participants as familiar research ethics issues that were amplified in these contexts. First, REC members viewed disaster research as having strong social value due to its potential for improving disaster response, but also as requiring a higher level of justification compared to other research settings. Second, they identified vulnerability as an overarching concern for disaster research ethics, and a feature that required careful and critical appraisal when assessing protocols. They noted that research participants’ vulnerabilities frequently change in the aftermath of a disaster and often in unpredictable ways. Third, they identified concerns related to promoting and maintaining safety, confidentiality and data security in insecure or austere environments. Lastly, though REC members endorsed the need and usefulness of community engagement, they noted that there are significant challenges in a disaster setting over and above those typically encountered in global health research to achieve meaningful community engagement. Disaster research presents distinctive ethical considerations that require attention to ensure that participants are protected. As RECs review disaster research protocols, they should address these concerns and consider how justification, vulnerability, security and confidentially, and community engagement are shaped by the realities of conducting research in a disaster.



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