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US says sorry for Guatemalan syphilis tests

Oct 02 2010 06:08

The US on Friday apologised for “outrageous and abhorrent” medical experiments in Guatemala in which American doctors deliberately infected hundreds of prisoners, soldiers and patients in mental hospitals with syphilis in the 1940s.

The experiments, conducted between 1946 and 1948, were intended to test the effects of penicillin on the sexually transmitted disease. Medical researchers arranged for prostitutes infected with syphilis to have sex with prison inmates to deliberately pass on the disease. Other men were injected with it.

The experiments were led by Dr John Cutler, a US health service physician who would later be part of a controversial syphilis study in Alabama in the 1960s. According to Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College professor who uncovered the experiment and prompted the apology, Cutler chose Guatemala because he would not have been permitted to do the experiments in the US.

The researchers were interested in whether penicillin could be used to prevent, not just cure, early syphilis infection.

‘Normal exposure’
“Cutler and the other physicians chose men in the Guatemala national penitentiary, then in an army barracks, and men and women in the national mental health hospital for a total of 696 subjects. Permissions were gained from the authorities but not individuals, not an uncommon practice at the time, and supplies were offered to the institutions in exchange for access,” Reverby wrote in a research paper. “The doctors used prostitutes with the disease to pass it to the prisoners [since sexual visits were allowed by law in Guatemalan prisons] and then did direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured onto the men’s penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded when the ‘normal exposure’ produced little disease, or in a few cases through spinal punctures.”

Reverby said that the men were given penicillin after they contracted the disease but it is not clear whether they were cured, and “not everyone received what was even then considered adequate treatment”.

The US apologised in a joint statement by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, in which they described the experiments as “clearly unethical”.

“Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health. We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologise to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” they said.

“The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala. The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago.”

The two Cabinet secretaries said they were launching a “thorough investigation” into the experiments and asking a presidential commission “to ensure that all human medical research conducted around the globe today meets rigorous ethical standards”.

The revelations have echoes of the Tuskegee study over four decades from the 1930s in which hundreds of African American men were deliberately left untreated for syphilis. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2010

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
Web Address: http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-10-02-us-says-sorry-for-guatemalan-syphilis-tests

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