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IntroductionHealth 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.MethodsWe 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.ResultsThere 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.ConclusionWe 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.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ global health

Publication Date





Health Systems and Research Ethics, KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kilifi, Kenya


Humans, Information Dissemination, Demography, Qualitative Research, Informed Consent, Africa South of the Sahara