Sixty years ago the US government deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalan mentally ill patients and prisoners with syphilis and gonorrhea in an experiment. The aim, apparently, was to test some vaccines for sexually transmitted infections (venereal diseases). None of the infected individuals had given their consent. Today, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has apologized on behalf of the US government – she described the experiments as “unethical and reprehensible”.
Nobody knows what eventually happened to the human guinea pigs. Syphilis can lead to serious heart problems, mental illness, loss of eyesight, and death. It appears the people were treated, but there is no information about their fate.
Prof Susan Reverby, of Wellesley College, uncovered the evidence about the program which occurred between 1946 and 1948. According to Reverby, the experiments were carried out with the blessing of the Guatemalan government and authorities. Almost 700 people were deliberately infected with two STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) – syphilis and gonorrhea. According to Guatemalan media, 1,500 people were experimented on.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement:
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 apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.
Infected prostitutes were used to infect the individuals. The scientists were trying to determine whether penicillin could prevent infection, rather than just curing it. After becoming infected the “patients” were treated. However, there is no information about the treatment’s effectiveness and safety.
This is not Prof. Reverby’s first research on experiments carried out on vulnerable human’s without their consent. She had previously researched on an experiment in the USA which gauged syphilis progression in African-American sharecroppers between 1932 and 1972 – they did not know they were being infected. Apparently, they neither received proper treatment after becoming infected. President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee Experiment, it was also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the Public Health Service Syphilis Study.
The Tuskegee Experiment occurred in Tuskegee Alabama and was carried out by the US Public Health Service. 339 impoverished sharecroppers, all of them African American, were infected with syphilis, without knowing it. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says they were told they were being treated for bad blood – a term sometimes used locally to describe fatigue, anemia and some other illnesses. For being participants they were offered free burial insurance, free medical exams and free meals.
The revelation of the study’s major failures – including dubious ethics, no consent and inadequate treatment and monitoring for safety – led to significant changes in American law regarding the protection of clinical study/trial participants. Today, a study requires informed consent, a proper reporting of diagnosis to the patient, and accurate information regarding the test results.
The majority of scientists today believe the Tuskegee Experiment is “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history”.
Guatemalan media informs that President Alvaro Colom described the experiments as “espeluznantes” (lurid, ghastly, shocking, causing horror) and “Crímenes de lesa humanidad” (crimes against humanity). He vowed to carry out a profound investigation. He also recognized the “Hidalguia” of the White House. Hidalguia is a Spanish word meaning “chivalry” – in this context it would best be translated as “in doing the honorable thing” (apologizing).
President Colom also vowed to seek compensation for those in his country and their relatives who suffered.
Sources: EFE, BBC, Whitehouse, Wikipedia.
Written by: Christian Nordqvist