Skip to comments.Full Disclosure: Did Government’s Experiment on Preemies Hide Risks?
Posted on 06/03/2014 7:55:28 AM PDT by huldah1776
Just 24 weeks into her pregnancy, Sharrissa Cook gave birth to a critically ill baby boy. Dreshan weighed in at a fragile 1 pound, 11 ounces. He lay motionless in the incubator, connected to tubes and monitors in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.
He was so tiny, Cook recalls. I was a first-time mom. I didnt have a clue. I didnt know what to expect.
It was Oct. 11, 2006. Medical personnel asked Cook, then a 26-year-old single mother, to enroll little Dreshan in a study. She says they described it as a program offering assistance and encouragement to preemiespremature babiesand their families. She readily signed the consent form.
I remember them telling me they were a support group who would pretty much hold my hand through the developmental process, Cook says.
But in reality, the study was much more than that. It was a national, government-funded experiment on 1,316 extremely premature infants in which their fate may as well have rested with the flip of a coin.
Other single moms were among those persuaded to sign up their critically ill babies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital describe similar misunderstandings of the studys purpose.
Bernita Lewis, then a 22-year-old student, says she enrolled her premature newborn, Christian, after medical personnel told her it simply was to gather data such as weight and height.
And Survonda Banks, then 21, unemployed and on public assistance, says someone handed her the consent form on her way in for an emergency C-section at 28 weeks of pregnancy. Banks remembers being told only that it was a way to help her baby, Destiny.
Parents Were Misled
The government-backed study is called SUPPORT, which stands for Surfactant, Positive Airway Pressure, and Pulse Oximetry Randomized Trial. The experiment was conducted at 23 academic institutions from 2005 through 2009 under the National Institutes of Health, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
All three women now say they never would have agreed to take part if they had known the NIH-funded studys true natureto randomly manipulate preemie oxygen levels. They discovered that just last year.
Dreshan and Christian are now 7 years old and both struggle with myriad health problems. Destiny died within three weeks. The mothers wonder: Did the experiment contribute to any of the medical problems of their children?
[Dreshan] was already at a slim chance of surviving; why would I make his chances of surviving more slim? Cook asks. 'I didn't have a clue': Sharrissa Cook, Dreshan's mom, with her father. (Photo: Angela Bradbery/Public Notice)
Didnt have clue: Sharrissa Cook, Dreshans mom, and father Julius. (Photo: Angela Bradbery/Public Notice)
Today, nine months after the federal government convened a public meeting to examine the subject, NIH and HHS officials have yet to propose a remedy to avoid a repeat of the controversy that erupted from the multiyear study.
The word unethical doesnt even begin to describe the egregious and shocking deficiencies in the informed-consent process for this study, says Dr. Michael Carome, an internationally recognized expert on research ethics with the Washington, D.C.-based consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.
Parents of the infants who were enrolled in this study were misled about its purpose, Carome says. They were misled to believe everything being done was in the standard of care and therefore posed no predictable risk to the babies.
Although federal officials repeatedly said the government didnt know how much the SUPPORT study cost taxpayers, a Freedom of Information Act request netted internal documents that show the figure is $20.8 million.
Dr. Waldemar Carlo, director of the neonatology division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, lead site for the study, denies wrongdoing on behalf of the approximately two-dozen institutions that took partincluding Wake Forest and Yale Universities.
In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in May 2013, Carlo (at right) wrote: Our consent forms were conscientiously drafted according to the Code of Federal Regulations and were based on the best available evidence.
Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for clinical research at Duke University School of Medicine, which also took part in the experiment, urges observers to dial back the rhetoric. Sensational claims of calling people unethical, I think, really detract from the serious discussion that needs to occur, Califf (below right) says.
The Oxygen Dilemma
Doctors say babies are at risk of complications even when born at 37 weeks, now considered early term. The stated goal of SUPPORT was to identify the best oxygen level for extremely preterm infantsgenerally those born before 25 weeks, and so especially in distress.
Medical personnel routinely give supplemental oxygen to babies who are born with immature lungs. Too much oxygen can cause severe eye damage, including a blood vessel disease and blindness called retinopathy. Too little oxygen can lead to brain damage and death.
The NIH-funded experiment used the test babies in an attempt to find the sweet spot for preemies yet to be born: the lowest level of oxygen that would preserve vision, yet be sufficient to prevent brain damage and death.
To get the answer, researchers arbitrarily assigned infants to either a high-oxygen or low-oxygen group. Because, researchers say, all oxygen levels fell within the generally accepted range, they argue the babies received the same standard of care as babies not in the study. None of the consent forms mentioned a risk of death from the oxygen experiment.
But it turns out there were key differences in how researchers treated babies in the study compared with those not in the study.
Normally, medical personnel constantly adjust oxygen as preemies conditions change, based on their individual needs. But the SUPPORT study was designed to keep infants in their randomly assigned range, despite a babys individual needs.
And in a decision that one government source says shocked seasoned researchers when they learned of it, the babies oxygen monitors intentionally were altered to provide false readings. The reason: so medical staff wouldnt be tempted to adjust oxygen out of the babies study-assigned range.
Nothing in the consent form explained the falsely reading oxygen monitors could lead to adverse decisions about care of the babies, Carome, who directs Public Citizens Health Research Group, says in an interview. He calls both the study design and consent form unethical.
Playing Russian roulette
In some instances, the results proved both disturbing and tragic.
More of the high-oxygen babies ended up with serious vision disorders. The low-oxygen preemies were more likely to die. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May 2010, sparked ethical questions and complaints. Companion studies being conducted in other countries were halted. Dreshan, born 20 days before Halloween in 2006, faced scary health issues. (Photo: courtesy Sharrissa Cook)
Dreshan, born 20 days before Halloween in 2006, faced scary health issues. (Photo: courtesy Sharrissa Cook)
Of learning her baby had been part of an oxygen experiment, Sharrissa Cook says: Thats more like playing Russian roulette to me. Theres no way I would say you could give my baby whatever you want him to have as opposed to what he needs.
Four years after the SUPPORT study was published, it is the subject of heated scientific and ethical debates about the balance between the need to recruit human research subjects and the responsibility of researchers to fully disclose all risks to test subjects or their guardians.
Both sides agree the outcome stands to affect the way scientists conduct experiments on humans.
And now, Public Citizen and nine prominent scholars in bioethics, law, and history are calling on the HHS Office of Inspector General to step in. On May 20, they went public with charges that senior NIH and HHS officials engaged in serious misconduct by interfering with an ethics office in HHS as it investigates the experiment on preemies.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., joined the call for the HHS inspector general to determine whether officials compromised the integrity and independence of the ethics probe.
The most troubling part is that numerous high-ranking officials facilitated this interference by senior NIH officials, Carome said, despite the fact that NIH had obvious actual, direct conflicts of interest in the research under investigation.
Sounds like good ol' eugenics to me.
That’s exactly what it is. The medical profession is knee deep in it.
The best way to describe this is that,
“Once again, the US government has gone ‘Full Mengele’.”
Likewise, it can be called the “Frankenstein complex”, in which ethics and humanity are entirely lost, in the pursuit of experimenting with the lives of others.
Explain to me just once more why I should believe that a gubmint that PROMOTES the slaughter of infants in the womb, would give a rat’s gluteous maximus about those born preemie....unless they viewed the preemies as a chance to let the “Dr. Mengeles” on the gubmint payroll satisfy THEIR ghoulish penchants by using them as guinea pigs!
Especially since those were all black babies.
Under Obamacare (and perhaps even not), will the quest for one-size-fits-all medical 'solutions' as opposed to individual care overrule the Hippocratic Oath?
Will the quest for 'cost savings' and 'efficient use of medical personnel' lead to countless avoidable deaths, for the sake of being able to use a setting off a chart rather than what the patient actually needs?
What was the goal of this particular experiment but to find a trade-off number for O2 treatment of neonatal ICU patients?
We universally view Mengele as the monster he was, can even the Obamites and baby slaughterers of this age justify this sort of experimentation?
Altering readouts to keep personnel from adjusting O2 levels to more tolerable or necessary levels to sustain life is criminal, imho. Better to note the range which is insufficient and increase it, or the excessive range and decrease it to come up with a tighter window of acceptable therapy than dogmatically keep the amount the same at the expense of the patients.
What happened to "First, do no harm..."?
I worked with Dr. Carlo for years back in the ‘80s in what was at the time the leading NICU in the world with literally the authors of the textbook. He was very highly respected and liked by the nurses. He was one of the few doctors that could be bothered to come to the holiday parties. We did many research studies in the NICU. I can’t imagine him having an unethical bone in his body. He always did what was thought to be in a baby’s best interest. I can not possibly speak highly enough of him as a doctor, and there have been very, very few doctors I’ve liked or respected.
From the perspective of first hand research experience in NICU, the likely culprits are the medical residents and nurses in this whole mess. The attending physicians (high mucky-mucks) do rounds and go by the documentation and reports given them, and what they see when they examine a baby. So- 24 hours of falsified reports and several short, personal exams during the day...how are they to know what shenanigans are actually being pulled? I more than once told a resident “over my dead body.” With 20 nurses doing that multiple times a day, the attendings only hear the really, really, exceptionally bad behavior/decisions. They wouldn’t have time to go teach their university classes if they had to hear it all. My suspicion is some fellows and senior residents were the ones to blame in this mess trying to ‘cook the books’ and further their careers. Certainly a history of that! Someone of Carlos’ status- a famous NICU doctor- would have too much to lose for (another) stinking study.
Lastly, my favorite memory of him:
We had an infection outbreak that went on for months exasperating us trying to get rid of it- cleaning, rotating rooms, sweltering in gowns and gloves.... Finally one morning Dr. Carlos said we’d tried everything possible we could do, then turned and invoked a blessing on the nursery. Our problem stopped after that. Very sad to me to see his good reputation and character smeared after knowing him so many years.
“Will the quest for ‘cost savings’ and ‘efficient use of medical personnel’ lead to countless avoidable deaths, for the sake of being able to use a setting off a chart rather than what the patient actually needs?”
I had a very vivid dream a couple years ago of NICUs being practically nonexistent any more, and the horrifying thought that it was solely motivated by cost, not ability to save babies with a good chance of survival and positive outcome. Local hospital NICUs/ Special Care nurseries will become few and far between with only university hospitals having them. Babies under about 36 weeks won’t be surviving. Viability is considered 23/24 weeks. That’s a whole lot of dead babies, which I have no doubt we’ll see under O-Care. The cost will just be too astronomical for the system.