Towards an appropriate ethics framework for Health and Demographic Surveillance Systems (HDSS): learning from issues faced in diverse HDSS in sub-Saharan Africa

Hinga AN, Molyneux S, Marsh V
BMJ Glob Health. 2021;6

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INTRODUCTION: Health and Demographic Surveillance Systems (HDSS) collect data on births, deaths and migration from relatively small, geographically defined populations primarily in Africa and Asia. HDSS occupy a grey area between research, healthcare and public health practice and it is unclear how ethics guidance that rely on a research-practice distinction apply to HDSS. This topic has received little attention in the literature. In this paper, based on empirical research across sub-Saharan Africa, we map out key ethical issues for HDSS and assess the relevance of current ethics guidance in relation to these findings. METHODS: We conducted a qualitative study across seven HDSS sites in sub-Saharan Africa, including individual in-depth interviews and informal discussions with 68 research staff, document reviews and non-participant observations of surveillance activities. Qualitative data analysis drew on a framework approach led by a priori and emergent themes, drawing on the wider ethics and social science literature. RESULTS: There were diverse views on core ethical issues in HDSS, including regarding the strengths and challenges of community engagement, informed consent and data sharing processes. A key emerging issue was unfairness in the overall balance of benefits and burdens for residents and front-line staff when compared with other stakeholders, particularly given the socioeconomic contexts in which HDSS are generally conducted. CONCLUSION: We argue that HDSS operate as non-traditional epidemiologic research projects but are often governed using ethics guidance developed for traditional forms of health research. There is a need for specific ethics guidance for HDSS which prioritises considerations around fairness, cost-effectiveness, ancillary care responsibilities, longitudinality and obligations of the global community to HDSS residents.