CALL FOR National Ethics Committee
What will happen to all the research and data collected with regard to the psychosocial impact of the tsunami on Sri Lankans? How will they be used? Should Sri Lanka allow a stream of people to walk into any camp, any area affected by the tsunami and question anyone at will?

A National Ethics Committee is needed to vet and approve medical and health research where human subjects are involved with respect to a national disaster, says Prof. Susirith Mendis, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Ruhunu University.

This is in view of the fact that after a natural disaster there is a possibility of support activities and research purposes being duplicated leading to the misuse and also abuse of the privacy of the vulnerable populations or communities, he explains.

Medical research ethics are an important restraint when conducting research using vulnerable populations or communities and the World Medical Association guidelines are very clear in this regard, he says, adding that children, women, pregnant mothers, psychologically affected people, those with psychiatric problems and also socio-economically deprived people fall under "vulnerable populations and communities".

"We can conclude that the tsunami-affected people, those living along the battered coastal belt including fishermen fall into this category," says Prof. Mendis. "When you are vulnerable you don't have the required mental capacity to take decisions for yourself. Your decision-making capacity is likely to be affected. Therefore, intrusion into their privacy making interventional research can create a situation where they are either coaxed, coerced or bribed to become subjects in research and in a process during which they may in fact take decisions detrimental to themselves, their families and their communities."

All this data collection, for what, he asks, citing an incident related by colleagues of a woman, most probably in a state of shock, who had obviously been pestered so much that on seeing people coming towards her rushed out with a pole to attack them.

There has to be compassion and also people need to be given enough time to recover, stresses Prof. Mendis. Ethically approved guidelines for data collection are vital, while the methodology of data collection and the need for it should be looked into, he says.

Referring to fears that such a body would become bureaucratized and centralized and prevent urgent needs of the communities being looked after, he stresses that in view of the large number of international groups and people coming into the country, an Ethics Committee is crucial. The greater likelihood would be that with an Ethics Committee, the interests of the vulnerable populations would be ensured.

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