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Human Rights Abuses, Ethics, and the Protection of Subjects When Conducting Research on Intravenous Drug Users in China

Amon, Joseph J PhD, MSPH

JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: June 1st, 2011 - Volume 57 - Issue 2 - p e29-e31
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0b013e318215de81
Letter to the Editor

Health and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch, New York NY

To the Editor:

In a recent issue of JAIDS: Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, Liu et al report on sequence variations in TRIM5α and the association with HIV-1 resistance among 1294 intravenous drug users (IDUs) in Yunnan Province, China.1 Although the authors state that the research was approved by the Ethics Committee of Kunming Institute of Zoology, they provide no information about the recruitment of study subjects, informed consent, notification or confidentiality of HIV status, or monitoring for negative consequences to IDU from participation in the study.

Intravenous drug use is a significant cause of HIV transmission in China. In 2007, an estimated 42% of new reported HIV infections were among injection drug users.2 Although there are 1.16 million registered drug users in China,3 recent estimates suggest that there are as many as five million illicit drug users overall, the overwhelming majority heroin users.4 While expanding community-based services such as methadone therapy and needle and syringe exchange, China has also increasingly put suspected drug users in compulsory drug dependency treatment centers.5 Between 1995 and 2000, China quadrupled its capacity to administratively detain drug users in “detoxification” centers,6 of which there are now estimated to be 700,7 housing approximately 330,000 drug users.8

Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has conducted a series of investigations into access to HIV prevention and treatment for IDU in China9 as well as conditions in compulsory drug detention centers,7 including in Yunnan Province,10 the site of the research conducted by Liu et al. Our research has found that Chinese IDUs are subject to severe human rights abuse from government policies and police practices in both the community and when detained.

For example, the Chinese government provides monetary incentives to citizens for reporting suspected drug users, and the police frequently stop suspected and registered drug users, including IDUs accessing HIV testing or methadone treatment services, and subject them to urine testing and detention. Drug users frequently reported to us that they, or their families, were compelled to bribe police when detained to avoid being sent to lengthy sentences in detoxification or re-education through labor centers. We found that IDUs who are sent for compulsory treatment are not afforded due process protections such as legal representation, judicial oversight, or the right to appeal their sentence and are subject to mandatory HIV testing (without being told the result), physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and the denial of health care, including effective, evidence-based drug dependency treatment. Suspected drug users may be detained for up to 5 years in “detoxification” and rehabilitation centers.

Other researchers have also reported on the abuse and desperation of drug users in detention centers, including the use of electric shocks while detainees viewed pictures of drug use11 and, in one study, that 9% of 3213 Chinese heroin users had swallowed glass to get a medical exemption from forced treatment.12 It is estimated that the centers have a rate of relapse of between 90 and 100%.13

These abuses violate international human rights law, including the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and to be free from forced labor.14 Drug detention centers in China have been described simply as “forced labor camps where slavery is enforced by violent punishments or torture.”15

In July 2010 at the 18th International AIDS Conference, the Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria called for the closure of all compulsory drug detention centers.16 This call has been echoed by UNAIDS (letter from UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé to Human Rights Watch, March 30, 2010), UNODC,17 UNDP,18 Unicef,19 the World Health Organization (e-mail correspondence from Director of HIV Department of WHO Gottfried Hirnschall to Human Rights Watch, May 6, 2010), and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.20 The UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture21 and Health22,23 have also spoken out against abuses in drug detention centers; the Director of the Drug Policy Coordination Unit of the European Commission said: “I believe that [these types of centers] are an abomination.”24

JAIDS: Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes requires authors to indicate whether their research is in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000.25 This Declaration emphasizes fundamental ethical principles such as informed consent and confidentiality,26 and Liu et al should specify what measures they took to ensure that these protections were respected whether their research was conducted in the community or in closed institutions.

More fundamentally, Liu et al should report on how their research on Chinese IDU, who face severe, ongoing human rights abuse, is consistent with the ethical principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice outlined in the Belmont Report.27 This report as well as subsequent ones28,29 proposes strict standards for research involving prisoners. Although drug use in China is an administrative and not a criminal offense, and individuals detained in compulsory drug detention centers in China have never been charged with a crime, they may fall within some definitions of “prisoners,”28 because they are forcibly detained and not free to leave at will.5 However, the absence of judicial oversight, and lack of transparency and accountability of drug detention centers, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to monitor, and respond to, potential negative consequences of research participation.

In addition, although I believe that research can be ethically conducted in prisons, I am doubtful that research in drug detention centers that does not report directly on the conditions faced by individuals in the center can be justified. Ignoring the arbitrary detention and the torture and mistreatment of individuals within the centers while reporting on basic scientific, epidemiologic, behavioral, or program evaluation research risks legitimatizing the centers as the “treatment” centers the Chinese government falsely presents them to be. Regardless of the possible ability of individuals to consent to participate in research, the first obligation of a researcher should be to appropriately investigate and characterize the setting of the research.

Liu et al should clarify where their research was conducted and the ethical protections and recruitment process used in their study. If these protections are inadequate, or if their research was conducted in compulsory drug detention centers, the Journal should withdraw the article from publication.

Joseph J. Amon, PhD, MSPH

Health and Human Rights Division, Human Rights Watch, New York, NY

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