NIH Director Zerhouni Defends AIDS, Sexual Health Research in Letter to Senate, House MembersNIH Director Elias Zerhouni this week sent a letter to House and Senate members defending his agency's funding of research related to sexual health, including AIDS, the New York Times reports (Grady, New York Times, 1/30). Conservative House members have questioned at least 10 NIH research grants, including grants for studies on emergency contraception, Asian sex workers in San Francisco and women's response to pornography. At an Oct. 2, 2003, hearing on the grants, Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.) asked NIH for information about the public benefit of the 10 studies. Zerhouni's staff contacted the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which co-sponsored the hearing, to obtain the list of studies about which Ferguson wanted further information. Instead of sending the list of 10 studies, a committee staff member sent a different, longer list. That list, which includes more than 200 grants representing $100 million in funding, was prepared by the Traditional Values Coalition, which says it represents 43,000 churches nationwide. Zerhouni ordered his staff to review approximately 190 of the studies (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/13). NIH staff were required to review the grants to determine whether the projects "were relevant to the public health needs of our country," used methodology that was "scientifically and ethically appropriate," had been "properly reviewed and funded by NIH" and received funding that was proportional "relative to the burden of sexually related diseases as compared to other diseases" (Letter text, 1/26).
Zerhouni wrote in the letter that although such research is "distasteful to some," the studies are important to public health, according to the AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Clearly, this has to be considered as one of our highest priorities in light of the enormous suffering and costs of illnesses associated with sexual behavior," he said (Sherman, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/30). Zerhouni noted that there are 15 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases each year in the United States and said that "[u]nhealthy human behaviors," including risky sexual practices, "have been estimated to be the proximal cause of over half of the disease burden in our country" (New York Times, 1/30). Zerhouni said that NIH is "initiating discussions ... to ensure that this research is better presented to the public so that they may understand the relevance of this research to public health and that it is prioritized appropriately" (Stacy McCain, Washington Times, 1/30). Enclosed with the letter was a summary of NIH's findings on the projects, including detailed reviews of several grants (Letter text, 1/26).
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who in fall 2003 criticized NIH and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson for questioning researchers about their work, praised Zerhouni, saying, "I urge my colleagues in Congress and Secretary Thompson to respect Dr. Zerhouni's decision and disavow irresponsible attacks on science" (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1/30). Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) called Zerhouni's defense of the projects "an unbelievable rationalization," adding, "Do I need a Ph.D. to understand why it is a sensible prioritization to spend hundreds of thousands of research dollars to pay women to watch porn, while countless Americans are suffering from dehabilitating diseases with no cures?" (Washington Times, 1/30).