There is more to the Nigerian Trovan trial debate than has been mentioned in the Washington Post and similar articles. First, it is important to note that some illnesses are more common in developing countries—e.g., the “meningitis belt” in Africa, and thus studies need to be conducted in these settings, rather than in the U.S.
For example, in the 1996 meningococcal meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, ~12,000 children died over 6 months. (Three or four cases in a U.S. community would be considered an “outbreak.”) Pfizer’s study compared Ceftriaxone, given by intramuscular injections, to Trovafloxacin, given orally. Pfizer has been criticized regarding their informed consent documentation and IRB approval–not without justification, from the second-hand reports I’ve read, but…
What is rarely mentioned is that the survival rate was reportedly 94.4% Trovan vs. 93.8 Ceftriaxone. Nor is it widely known that Trovan was also being studied for meningitis in the US by well-respected pediatric infectious diseases specialists. The outcome in the US was clinical success in 79% of the Trovan patients vs. 81% in the Ceftriaxone group, and the longer-term sequelae showed no difference between the groups. (The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal:Volume 21(1) January 2002, pp 14-22)
Nor is the value of developing oral treatments for infections generally discussed. Doctors Without Borders was treating other meningitis with intramuscular injections of Chloramphenicol—a wonderful drug that is now rarely used because it kills ~1/30,000 patients who receive it.
Multiple IM injections are painful, require sterile technique and more skilled health care workers than do oral medications. Supplies for injected drugs are more difficult and expensive to handle and administer, particularly in poorer, tropical countries.
Pfizer may not have not conducted this trial perfectly or with adequate informed consent—I don’t know, as I wasn’t there. But I do know the horror of watching young people die from meningococcal disease, and I do understand the rationale and goal of developing an oral drug for a devastating disease that episodically kills thousands of children. While I am often critical of this company, they deserve a fair trial.
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