On the ethics of vaccine challenge studies

malaria vaccine

The National Institutes of Health ran an ad in today’s express calling for volunteers to participate in a malaria research study that could run for as long as a year:

This study tests if an experimental vaccine is safe and can prevent infection following exposure to the malaria parasite. If the vaccine does not prevent infection and volunteers develop malaria symptoms, they will receive immediate treatment which is curative.

Having witnessed the brutal effects of the disease in my father, who, after serving in New Guinea during World War II, returned to the States infected and without benefit of a “curative,” I am of two minds about a study like this. Certainly I would have wanted him to be spared the suffering he endured with each redoubled bout, and certainly I would want us to find a vaccine for a disease that currently has in its grip an estimated 219 million people worldwide.

Yet, I cannot help but question the ethics of conducting a research study in which healthy people are infected with a deadly disease in order to test the efficacy of a new vaccine designed to prevent the sickness (though, yes, thanks to volunteers in such studies, I have not contracted smallpox or other dreaded illnesses). Honestly, I can’t even get past an image of myself waiting in a steely room for an Anopheles mosquito to come whining around me in search of a blood meal.

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