International health research in malaria-endemic settings may include screening for sickle cell disease, given the relationship between this important genetic condition and resistance to malaria, generating questions about whether and how findings should be disclosed. The literature on disclosing genetic findings in the context of research highlights the role of community consultation in understanding and balancing ethically important issues from participants’ perspectives, including social forms of benefit and harm, and the influence of access to care. To inform research practice locally, and contribute to policy more widely, this study aimed to explore the views of local residents in Kilifi County in coastal Kenya on how researchers should manage study-generated information on sickle cell disease and carrier status.
Between June 2010 and July 2011, we consulted 62 purposively selected Kilifi residents on how researchers should manage study-generated sickle cell disease findings. Methods drew on a series of deliberative informed small group discussions. Data were analysed thematically, using charts, to describe participants’ perceptions of the importance of disclosing findings, including reasoning, difference and underlying values. Themes were derived from the underlying research questions and from issues emerging from discussions. Data interpretation drew on relevant areas of social science and bioethics literature.
Perceived health and social benefits generated strong support for disclosing findings on sickle cell disease, but the balance of social benefits and harms was less clear for sickle cell trait. Many forms of health and social benefits and harms of information-sharing were identified, with important underlying values related to family interests and the importance of openness. The influence of micro and macro level contextual features and prioritization of values led to marked diversity of opinion.
The approach demonstrates a high ethical importance in many malaria endemic low-to-middle income country settings of disclosing sickle cell disease findings generated during research, alongside provision of effective care and locally-informed counselling. Since these services are central to the benefits of disclosure, health researchers whose studies include screening for sickle cell disease should actively promote the development of health policy and services for this condition in situations of unmet need, including through the prior development of collaborative partnerships with government health managers and providers. Community consultation can importantly enrich ethical debate on research practice where in-depth exploration of informed views and the potential for difference are taken into account.