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U.S. government apologizes to Guatemala for unethical medical experiments

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While researching an unethical medical experiment that took place in Alabama, a Massachusetts history professor was shocked to learn that the same U.S. public health officer who led the experiments in the United States had earlier infected about 700 unsuspecting Guatemalan men and women with sexually transmitted diseases in order to test new therapies on them.

Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College, was researching the activities of Dr. John Cutler, a medical officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, who headed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972 when she uncovered his archived papers. Cutler’s federally funded study observed the effects of syphilis on African-American men without treating them or disclosing that they were part of a research study. When going through his papers, Reverby found that Cutler had led earlier experiments on vulnerable Guatemalans who were hospitalized, incarcerated in prisons or insane asylums, or serving in the miltary.

The discovery prompted U.S. officials to issue an apology to Guatemala.

In her synopsis of Cutler’s activities in Guatemala, Reverby wrote: “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. 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. Unlike in Alabama, the subjects were then given penicillin after they contracted the illness. However, whether everyone was then cured is not clear and not everyone received what was even then considered adequate treatment.”

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the experiments in a joint statement released Friday.

“The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical,” according to the 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.  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.”

This type of experimentation could never occur today, say officials. “When Dr. Cutler and his colleagues were conducting their studies in Guatemala in 1946, there were no formalized regulations regarding the protection of human subjects in research. Today the regulations that govern research funded by the United States Government, whether it is conducted domestically or internationally, would prohibit this type of study,” according to the HHS.


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