Ethics. Research. Community.

Forced trials of drug users in Cambodia?

This is one of these stories in ethical flux. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has claimed that earlier this month the Cambodian police rounded up at least 17 drug users and brought them to a government-run drug detention center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where they were forced to participate in a drug study. The drug being tested is 'Bong Sen', a herbal substance that is alleged (by the company that makes it) to detoxify heroin/opiate users in 4-5 days. HRW lays out the ethical problems with the experiment: coercive recruitment and lack of informed consent; lack of review of the study by the ethical committee of the Ministry of Health; unknown (and possibly shoddy) study methodology, including apparent lack of follow-up of research participants.

Just to show how deep the government is involved in the Bong Sen trial, the Cambodian prime minister is said to have given the Vietnamese doctors written permission to administer Bong Sen to drug users. When the Orkas Knhom drug treatment center could not come up with sufficient 'volunteers', staff from the NACD are said to have demanded that clients at local NGOs take the medicine. The NGOs hesitated, given that the herbal medicine being pushed did not seem to go through routine drug trial procedures. Staff from the NACD then threatened the NGOs with closures and withholding their licences for needle-exchange programs. That is apparently what went on before the police arrested drug users and had them enter the Bong Sen study. For its part, the NACD has denied everything: the drug users were volunteers; the herbal treatment is not really a drug, and does not have to go through drug approval procedures; there is no real trial at all. Just giving out medicine....