Necessity for ethical consideration of research in the aftermath of disaster


MEMBERS OF THE Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology (JSPN) would like to express our sincere condolences to the victims of the Great East Japan earthquake on 11 March 2011 causing devastation throughout the Tohoku region.

We are certain that people are trying to absorb the scale of the destruction and struggling to deal with all the thoughts and feelings resulting from this disaster, as they are working to cope with its impact. Therefore, JSPN will do everything in its power to support all persons affected by this tragedy.1 A natural disaster can happen at any time and disaster survivors are in a particularly vulnerable position while making a strenuous effort towards revival. On the other hand, research can provide important data on how to prevent and deal with disaster. In other words, consequences of both natural and man-made disasters are related to the increasing complexity of technology that is omnipresent in our society. Technological advances increase dependence on technology while increased dependence on technology increases vulnerability living in society. Therefore research in the aftermath of a disaster is essential because it provides data that can directly and indirectly be used to facilitate management and minimize damages in future disaster events.2 For example, epidemiological data, treatment guidelines and pathophysiological research on post-traumatic stress disorder3 are essential to prevent, treat and understand this condition after disasters.

However, the research in these settings presents the question of how best to balance the critical need for research with the equally important obligation to respect and protect the interests of research participants within the unique stress of a disaster.4 Few studies have assessed ethical considerations surrounding research participation.5 It is important that precautions be taken at every step of the way to maximize the possible benefits and minimize the potential risks. Additionally, the local social, cultural, and economic context in which the research is being conducted must be carefully considered such that the risks and benefits of research can be optimally understood, measured, and addressed.6

For this purpose, ethical principles that must be considered in these situations are the same as those that are important when conducting any human research: respect for persons, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice.7 Projects focused on the aftermath of disaster must be regulated by ethical guidelines (i.e. ‘Ethical Guidelines about Epidemiological Research’8). In addition, researchers must respect cultural and local traditions. There is need for investigators, institutional review boards and public health and government officials to have access to discussions of this type in the event of future disasters in order to ensure that important research can be expeditiously reviewed and conducted in a manner that protects the interests of the participants.9

Projects focused on the Great East Japan Earthquake must be regulated by ethical guidelines (i.e. ‘Ethical Guidelines about Epidemiological Research’) too. In addition, researchers must respect cultural and local traditions in the Tohoku area. Exploiting or abusing disaster survivors for research without strong scientific justification and ethical consideration should never be allowed. JSPN is strongly opposed to investigations conducted in disaster-stricken areas (i.e. the Tohoku region) that are lacking ethical/scientific rigor and that are not culturally or regionally appropriate. JSPN published ‘The emergency statement on the investigation and research practices concerning the Great East Japan Earthquake’10 and we call on researchers around the world to ensure ethical validity in projects focused on the Great East Japan Earthquake.