U.S. Apologizes for Deliberately Infecting Guatemalans With Syphilis

By Jennifer Welsh | October 1, 2010 4:13 pm

syphilisThe United States government officially apologized to Guatemala today for unethical medical experiments conducted by American researchers in the country over 60 years ago, in which unwitting subjects were deliberately infected with syphilis.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said they were, in their words, “outraged that such reprehensible research could could have occurred under the guise of public health.” [AP]

The study’s 696 participants were drawn from local prisons, army bases, and mental health facilities; many were paired with infected prostitutes from whom they unknowingly contracted the disease, while others had syphilis bacteria poured on to their penises, forearms, or faces. While the subjects were subsequently treated with penicillin, it’s not clear if the treatment was always adequate. The study was conducted by John Cutler, who was also involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and has since passed away.

Clinton and Sebelius’s statement didn’t mince words.

“We deeply regret that it happened and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices,” they said, announcing the launch of a thorough investigation into the specifics of the study. “The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical.” [AFP]

The aim of the study was to find new ways to prevent STDs; specifically, researchers wondered if penicillin could be used to prevent an infection with syphilis. The study was funded by the NIH and the Pan American Health Organization. Researchers gained permission from the prison, army, and hospital authorities to conduct the work, but the participants weren’t informed of what the study would entail and weren’t asked for consent.

The information about the experiments was uncovered by gender studies researcher Susan Reverby, who gathered the information from unpublished experimental notes she found. She published the findings on her website, where a summary (pdf) of her findings is also available. While ethical guidelines were much more lax in the 1940s, Reverby discovered that even then, the U.S. government knew these experiments were unethical.

Yet the PHS [public health service] was aware then that this was a study that would raise ethical questions. For as Surgeon General Thomas Parran made clear “’You know, we couldn’t do such an experiment in this country.” Deception was the key here as it had been in Tuskegee. Much of this was kept hushed even from some of the Guatemalan officials and information about the project only circulated in selected syphilology circles. [Reverby’s Research summary (pdf)]

While the government kept the experiment hush-hush back then, officials are speaking out now. Current NIH director Francis Collins has said that he’s appalled by the experiments, and Secretary Clinton is reaching out to Guatemala with an official apology from the United States.

Clinton called President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala on Thursday night “to express her personal outrage, deep regret,” Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, said in a Twitter message. Valenzuela said in another posting that he’d spoken with Guatemala’s ambassador to Washington to express a U.S. “commitment to human dignity and respect for the people. [Miami Herald]

Related content:
80beats: Photo: Guatemala’s Crazy-Deep Sinkhole (No, It’s Not Photoshopped)
Discoblog: Mummy Rights: Do Ancient Dead People Deserve Medical Privacy?
Discoblog: Worst Science Article of The Week: Facebook Causes Syphilis
Discoblog: First Rule of Being a Successful STD: Make Sure the Host Still Has Sex
The Loom: Fish, syphilis, and love
DISCOVER: How Often Do Animals Get STDs?

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CDC and Dr. David Cox

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • bigjohn756

    Unethical? This was scum of the earth evil! Now, if the researchers had included themselves and their families…

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Well, infecting their own families wouldn’t have exactly been the stuff of Nobel Peace Prizes, either.

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    60 years? That is still faster than the fastest ever apology by the Catholic Church!

    ~Rhaco

  • Alan Cooper

    This is still going on today. Just do a google on “us drug tests third world countries” and you’ll find many horrifying articles eg “Many drugs for U.S. kids tested in poor countries”. What about US cigarette companies selling cigarettes to starving people? What about US Companies selling Formula Milk in third world countries? Over the Internet I told an American woman that the US was the most hated nation on earth. She objected most strongly but when I pointed out what was going on she said she didn’t know. The US Press would never publish such unpatriotic facts. A USA teacher recently commented on one of my video clips “But seriously, this is the side of Africa that NEVER gets shown in the media. Thank God for youtube and internet so curious people like myself can see for real what Africa has to offer besides poverty, distended bellies, shanty towns, poverty and pre-industrial survivalism. There is SO much more there than the media wants us to know about. Come on Africa!”

  • Abhishek Joshi

    I think that it is the same case everywhere. Indians too were shown in the same manner up until a few years back. Many westerners believed it to be a land of sanke charmers and magicians, and others believed it to be the capital of poverty and disease. But getting a responsible media did turn the table around for us. It may work for others as well.

  • Dante The Canadian

    The US isn’t the only country to have done this sort of thing, and it continues to this day. Multi national drug companies, oil companies, and all sorts of other conglomorate organizations perform tests and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear, 50 years from now, that the US, China, the EU, or one of these other entities having to apologize for the actions of today.

  • http://shattersense.com/ shattersense

    paris hilton isn’t that old, so my real question here is, who did we send over there with that mission?

  • http://www.retro-pics.net Odd

    Grim subject but useful info, thanks!

  • Jennifer

    When will they apologize for the forced sterilizations of the american indian women in the 1960’s?

  • A. Reader

    You might wonder how many *other* atrocities the U.S. government has committed here and abroad that *have not yet* come to light.

    The U.S. is not simply immoral, they are totally amoral. Money drives politics, science, and business. Human rights are blatantly ignored and violated, and there is little real justice for the poor, the misunderstood, and the maligned.

    Such a fine country! Be proud to be an American!
    .

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