U.S. News

U.S. Infected Guatemalans for STD Tests

October 4, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, together with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, on Friday issued a joint apology for medical experiments the US government conducted in the 1940s in which Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers and others were deliberately infected with syphilis and other STDs.

The experiments were led by Dr. John C. Cutler of the US Public Health Service (USPHS). Between 1946 and 1948, approximately 1,500 Guatemalan men and women were unwittingly drafted into studies aimed at assessing the effectiveness of penicillin on STDs.

The studies were sponsored by USPHS, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the World Health Organization's Pan American Health Organization) and the Guatemalan government. Cutler, Guatemalan health official Juan Funes and colleagues decided to study men in Guatemala City's Central Penitentiary, since prisoners there were allowed to have sex with prostitutes. Some of the prostitutes tested positive for syphilis; in other cases, doctors placed infectious material on the cervixes of uninfected prostitutes before they had sex with prisoners.

Due to low infection rates, the researchers then attempted "direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured into the men's penises and on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded ... or in a few cases through spinal punctures," wrote Susan M. Reverby, a history professor at Wellesley College. Similar experiments were performed involving gonorrhea and chancroid.

Reverby uncovered the project while researching the notorious Tuskegee experiment. Cutler also participated in that 40-year study, in which hundreds of black men with late-stage syphilis were left untreated so scientists could examine the progress of the disease. The subjects in the Guatemalan study were purposefully infected and treated, but it remains unclear whether they were treated adequately, or what became of them.

Reverby shared her discovery last spring with retired CDC Director David Sencer, who notified current agency officials, leading to Friday's public disclosure.

After being briefed about the revelations, President Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom to "personally express that apology," said White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs.

NIH Director Francis S. Collins condemned the experiment and said strict prohibitions are in place to prevent such abuses from occurring today. "This case of unethical human subject research represents an appalling example from a dark chapter in the history of medicine," said Collins.

Back to other news for October 2010

Adapted from:
Washington Post
10.02.2010; Rob Stein

This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.

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