Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Kids denied monitors in AIDS drug trials

by John Solomon
The Associated Press
May 5, 2005

WASHINGTON - Government-funded researchers tested AIDS drugs on hundreds of foster children over the past two decades, often without providing them a basic protection afforded in federal law and required by some states, an Associated Press review has found.

The research funded by the National Institutes of Health spanned the country. It was most widespread in the 1990s as foster care agencies sought treatments for their HIV-infected children that weren't yet available in the marketplace.

The practice ensured that foster children - mostly poor or minority - received care from world-class researchers at government expense, slowing their rate of death and extending their lives. But it also exposed a vulnerable population to the risks of medical research and drugs that were known to have serious side effects in adults and for which the safety for children was unknown.

The research was conducted in at least seven states - Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Colorado and Texas - and involved more than four dozen different studies.

The foster children ranged from infants to late teens, according to interviews and government records.

Several studies that enlisted foster children reported patients suffered side effects such as rashes, vomiting and sharp drops in infection-fighting blood cells. In one study, researchers reported a ``disturbing'' higher death rate among children who took higher doses of a drug.

The government provided special protections for young wards in 1983. They required researchers and their oversight boards to appoint independent advocates for any foster child enrolled in a narrow class of studies that involved greater than minimal risk and lacked the promise of direct benefit. Some foster agencies required the protection regardless of risks and benefits.

However, researchers and foster agencies told The AP that foster children in AIDS drug trials often weren't given such advocates even though research institutions many times promised to do so to gain access to the children.

Illinois officials believe that none of their nearly 200 foster children in AIDS studies got independent monitors even though researchers signed a document guaranteeing ``the appointment of an advocate for each individual ward participating in the respective medical research.''

New York City could find records showing 142 - less than a third - of the 465 foster children in AIDS drug trials got such monitors even though city policy required them. The city has asked an outside firm to investigate.

Likewise, research facilities including Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said they concluded that they didn't provide advocates for foster kids.

Some states declined to participate in medical experiments. Tennessee said its foster care rules generally prohibit enlisting children in such trials. California requires a judge's order. And Wisconsin ``has absolutely never allowed, nor would we even consider, any clinical experiments with the children in our foster care system,'' spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said.

Officials estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of the 13,878 children enrolled in pediatric AIDS studies funded by NIH since the late 1980s were in foster care. More than two dozen Illinois foster children remain in studies today.

Some foster children died during studies, but state or city agencies said they could find no records that any deaths were directly attributed to the treatments.

Researchers typically secured permission to enroll foster children through city or state agencies. And they frequently exempted themselves from appointing advocates by concluding that the research carried minimal risk and that the child would benefit directly because the drugs already had been tried in adults.

Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said advocates should have been appointed for all foster children because researchers felt the pressure of a medical crisis and knew there was great uncertainty as to how children would react to AIDS medications that were often toxic for adults.

``It is exactly that set of circumstances that made it absolutely mandatory to get those kids those advocates,'' Caplan said. ``It is inexcusable that they wouldn't have an advocate for each one of those children.

``When you have the most vulnerable subjects imaginable - kids without parents - you really do have to come in with someone independent, who doesn't have a dog in this fight,'' he said.

Those who made the decisions say the research gave foster kids access to drugs they otherwise couldn't get. And they say they protected the children's interest by carefully explaining risks and benefits to state guardians, foster parents and the children themselves.

``I understand the ethical dilemma surrounding the introduction of foster children into trials,'' said Dr. Mark Kline, a pediatric AIDS expert at Baylor College of Medicine. He enrolled some Texas foster kids in his studies and doesn't recall appointing advocates for them.

``To say as a group that foster children should be excluded from clinical trials would have meant excluding these children from the best available therapies at the time,'' he said. ``From an ethical perspective, I never thought that was a stand I could take.''

Illinois officials directly credit the decision to enroll HIV-positive foster kids with bringing about a decline in deaths - from 40 between 1989 and 1995 to only 19 since.

NIH, the government health research agency that funded the studies, did not track researchers to determine if they appointed advocates.
Instead, the decision was left to medical review boards made up of volunteers at each study site.

The U.S. Office for Human Research Protections, created to protect research participants after the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies on black men, is investigating the use of foster children in AIDS research. The office declined to discuss the probe.

Research and foster agencies declined to make foster parents or children in the drug trials available for interviews, or to provide information about individual drug dosages, side effects or deaths, citing medical privacy laws.

Other families who participated in the same drug trials told AP their children mostly benefited but parents needed to monitor potential side effects carefully. Foster children, they said, need the added protection of an independent advocate.

``I don't believe a foster care parent can do it,'' said Vinnie DiPoalo, a New Jersey woman whose 10-year-old adopted son has participated in three AIDS drug trials.

``There are informed consents that have to be signed. There are follow-up blood appointments. ... Someone needs to be watching all the time.''

• Records: To read some of the documents relevant to The AP's review, point your Web browser to wid.ap.org/inv/foster.html

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