Researcher disciplined

Study by Hopkins doctor of war-related civilian deaths in Iraq violated protocols

February 24, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

The Johns Hopkins University has disciplined the lead author of a widely publicized study that reported widespread civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion.

Dr. Gilbert Burnham is barred for five years from serving as a principal investigator on research involving human subjects after a yearlong investigation by the Bloomberg School of Public Health. The school said yesterday that Burnham violated its protocols in collecting the full names of Iraq survey participants, potentially putting them at risk.

No one was harmed as a result of the collection, the school determined, and the identifying information was never released. The violation did not affect the results of the study, which found that 654,000 Iraqis died of various causes because of the invasion, the school said.

"The protocols are put in place to minimize the risk to participants, and a violation of those protocols could potentially put people at risk," said Tim Parsons, spokesman for the Bloomberg School. "And that's a serious matter."

Burnham can appeal the decision to the university provost, but he said he does not expect to do that. In an interview yesterday, he said he was gratified that the Hopkins investigation, as well as independent reviews, have verified his results. "I think that strengthens our conviction on the quality of the data and its relevance," he said. "The importance of measuring the impact of war on populations, I think, is critical."

Because of the difficulty of carrying out research in Iraq during the war, Burnham and his team partnered with Iraqi doctors at a university in Iraq. Burnham, working out of Jordan, said he made it clear to the doctors that they could collect the first names of children and adults, to help keep the information straight, but that last names could not be collected.

When the surveys came back to him in Jordan, it appeared that some had last names. Many were in Arabic. Burnham said he asked his Iraqi partners and was told that the names were not complete, which he accepted. But Hopkins, in its investigation, found that the data form used in the surveys was different from what was originally proposed, and included space for names of respondents. Hopkins found that full names were collected.

Burnham said that, as principal investigator, he takes responsibility for the lapse. He said the five-year suspension is an inconvenience but that it is time for him to turn over lead-investigator work to other faculty in the school. Burnham, 66, will remain a professor and co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response.

Burnham's study was published in 2006 by The Lancet, a British medical journal. Because the original paper said that identifying data were not collected, Bloomberg said a correction will be submitted.

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