U.S. Conducted Syphilis Experiments in Guatemala Without Consent
Beginning in 1946 through 1948, an experiment funded and conducted by the United States' National Institutes of Health (NIH), infecting those in the study without their knowledge with syphilis and, in some cases, gonorrhea, was conducted on nearly 700 Guatemalan men and women without their consent.
It is believed the study was designed to test the effectiveness of penicillin, a relatively new drug that had been recently developed.
This disturbing study relied on prostitutes for transmission of the disease as well as infection through inoculation when sexual contact did not infect enough people.
At some point, penicillin was offered to those infected. It is unclear how many accepted treatment and how many were or were not cured of the diseases.
Apologies have been offered to representatives of the Guatemalan government. President Obama spoke to President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has also made contact with Guatemalan officials.
While secretly trying to infect people with serious diseases is abhorrent today, the Guatemalan experiment isn't the only example from what Collins on Friday 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.
"We've made some obvious moral progress" in protecting the poor and powerless, said Dr. Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist. "The sad legacy" of past unethical experiments is that "they still shape who it is that we can get to trust medical researchers."
A continuing ethical dilemma in developing countries is what Caplan calls the "left-behind syndrome," when the people who helped test a treatment can never afford the resulting care.
"It's still ethically contentious as to how we ought to conduct, or whether we ought to conduct, certain forms of research in poor nations today," he said.
In her book, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Harriet Washington provides painful documentation of a number of experiments that assuredly would be declared unethical by today's medical community.
Ms. Washington points out, post the period of slavery, during the times when these types of experiments were conducted, there was a prevailing attitude of indifference that allowed the use of people referred to as minorities and in general, the use of the poor of all races.
During an interview with Democracy Now! in 2007, Ms. Washington discussed what arguably has come to be known as one of the United States' worst examples of the medical community's domestic misstep off the path of ethical treatment of its patients, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, also known as the infamous Tuskegee Experiment.
This experiment was conducted by one of the precursors to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). The experiment continued for over 40 years, more than 20 of those years after a cure had been found.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Tuskegee, the Tuskegee Experiment, though you write about how it obscures all others. A lot of people don’t even know about Tuskegee.
HARRIET WASHINGTON: That’s true. That’s true. Tuskegee is, you know, the icon of abusive experimentation of black people, but it’s true, many people still don’t know what happened, and there are a lot of misconceptions floating about, as well. So that’s a really good question, Amy.
What happened was that about 400 black men in Macon County, Alabama, with syphilis—who had been diagnosed with syphilis, at least—were studied over a period of forty years by the United States Public Health Service. There were 200 men who were not infected who were held as a control group, also black men. Over the course of forty years, these men were duped into thinking that they were in a treatment program. But they weren’t. They were given pain pills, which, as it transpired, were simply aspirin. They were given spinal taps, which, as it transpired, were not for the good of their health or to monitor their health, but rather to ensure a supply of sera for the development of a syphilis test. So they were used over forty years, even after the advent of penicillin. When penicillin was recognized as a cure, it was withheld from these men.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And this was between—what was the forty-year span?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: 1932 to 1972.
AMY GOODMAN: How many people knew about this at the time? How did it stop?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Hundreds of people knew about it, because there were regular reports in the medical journals, and it was actually presented at an American Medical Association meeting in 1965. There were also numerous meetings of governmental agencies, where they periodically would ask, "Should we continue the experiment or not?" And the decision was always, "Yes, we should continue the experiment." It’s worth noting that the surgeon general, Thomas Parran, had taken on syphilis eradication as his mission, and yet when penicillin was devised and he had the cure, he made the decision to continue the experiment, because he said they represent an opportunity that will never come again.
Most Recommended Comment
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States