The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has concluded its investigation into STD (sexually transmitted disease) experiments carried out in Guatemala in the 1940s without people's consent. The US government had deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalans, including mentally ill patients and prisoners, with gonorrhea and syphilis in an experiment to test some STD vaccines. None of those infected had given their consent.
Last year, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, apologized on behalf of the US government, describing the experiments as "unethical and reprehensible". The fate of the human guinea pigs is unknown. Syphilis can eventually lead to mental illness, blindness, serious heart problems, and death.
Commission Chair, Amy Gutmann, Ph.D., said that:
"The US PHS (Public Health Service Commissioned Corps) research involved intentionally exposing and infecting vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted diseases without the subjects' consent. The Commission discussed several of its findings at its public quarterly meeting in Washington today as it worked to refine its conclusions. The report will be provided to President Obama in early September.
It is important that we accurately document this clearly unethical historical injustice. We do this to honor the victims. In addition, we must look to and learn from the past so that we can assure the public that scientific and medical research today is conducted in an ethical manner. Research with human subjects is a sacred trust. Without public confidence, participation will decline and critical research will be stopped. It is imperative that we get this right. "
Last year it was revealed that the US PHS supported experiments on STD in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. President Barak Obama gave the Bioethics Commission two tasks:
- Carry out a comprehensive investigation into exactly what occurred in the research in Guatemala. This investigation is due in September, 2011.
- Assure the President that the rules today for people who participate in research protect people from unethical treatment or harm, at home as well as abroad. This report is due in December, 2011.
Employees working for and on behalf of the Commission examined more than 125,000 documents which had been gathered from private and public archives. They also went to Guatemala on a fact-finding trip. According to the Commission, staff liaised closely with the Guatemalan government.
The Commission also determined how the Guatemalan research differed from experiments carried out at Terre Haute, Ind., USA, in 1943. The same researchers involved in Terre Haute later on carried out the STD experiments in Guatemala. In Terre Haute the prisoners volunteered, they were fully briefed and gave their consent, while in Guatemala none of that was done. Gutmann said:
"This finding goes a long way to helping the Commission answer the question about whether ethics rules of the time were violated."
Evidence regarding the experiments were uncovered by Prof Susan Reverby, of Wellesley College. Reverby said the Guatemalan government had given its blessing to the experiments. Guatemalan media says 1,500 were used as guinea pigs unwittingly; Reverby put the number at about 700.
In a joint statement last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said:
"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."
The test subjects were infected by having sex with infected prostitutes. The researchers had wanted to find out whether penicillin could prevent STD infection, and not just cure it. Documents indicate that the test subjects were treated after they became infected. However, how effective or safe that treatment was in unknown.
Written by Christian Nordqvis