US apologises for 1940s ‘tragic’ Guatemala syphilis study

2010-10-02 09:58

American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis 60 years ago, according to a recently unearthed experiment that prompted US officials to apologize and declare outrage over “such reprehensible research.”

The US government-funded experiment, which ran from 1946 to 1948, was discovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. It apparently was conducted to test whether penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infection with sexually transmitted diseases. The study came up with no useful information and was hidden for decades.

Two members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet apologized to the Guatemalan government for the tests, and the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the medical experimentation was “shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible.”

Obama telephoned Guatemalan President Alvaro Colon to apologize personally.

The government researcher who led the work in Guatemala was also involved in this country’s infamous Tuskegee experiment, where from 1932 to 1972 scientists tracked 600 black men in Alabama who had syphilis but did not know it, without ever offering them treatment.

“We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said yesterday.

Guatemalan Embassy official Fernando de la Cerda said his country had known nothing about the experiment until Clinton called to apologize on Thursday night.

“We appreciate this gesture from the USA, acknowledging the mistake and apologizing,” he said. “This must not affect the bilateral relationship.”

Today’s strict regulations make clear that it is unethical to experiment on people without their consent and require special steps for any work with such vulnerable populations as prisoners. But such regulations did not exist in the 1940s.

The US government ordered two independent investigations to uncover exactly what happened in Guatemala and to make sure current bioethics rules are adequate. They will be led by the prestigious Institute of Medicine and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.


While deliberately trying to infect people with serious diseases is abhorrent today, the Guatemalan experiment is not the only example from what National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins yesterday called “a dark chapter in the history of medicine.”
Forty similar deliberate-infection studies were conducted in the United States during that period, Collins said.

In Guatemala, 696 men and women were exposed to syphilis or in some cases gonorrhea, through jail visits by prostitutes or, when that did not infect enough people, by deliberately inoculating them, reported Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby.

Those who were infected were offered penicillin, but it was not clear how many were infected and how many were treated successfully.
She reported that the United States had gained permission from Guatemalan officials to conduct the study, but did not inform the experimental subjects.

Reverby’s work was reported first by NBC News. She uncovered the records of Dr. John Cutler, a prominent government scientist of the 1940s, while researching the Tuskegee experiment for a recent book. She posted on her website a copy of an article about the findings that is to be published in January in an academic journal.

A speech she gave on her findings last spring alerted government health officials to her findings, resulting in Friday’s apology.

The revelation of abuses by a U.S. medical research programme is only the latest chapter in the United States’ troubled history with the impoverished Central American nation, which has a per capita gross domestic product about half that of the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.

The US helped topple the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and backed several hard-line governments during a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and cost 200?000 lives.

Associated Press writer Luis Alonso contributed to this report.

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