US apologises for '40s syphilis study in Guatemala

American scientists deliberately infected prisoners and patients in a mental hospital in Guatemala with syphilis 60 years ago, a recently unearthed experiment that prompted US officials to apologise yesterday and declare outrage over "such reprehensible research."

The discovery dredges up past wrongs in the name of science — like the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in this country that has long dampened minority participation in medical research — and could complicate ongoing studies overseas that depend on cooperation from some of the world's poorest countries to tackle tough-to-treat diseases.



Uncovering it gives "us all a chance to look at this and — even as we are appalled at what was done — to redouble our efforts to make sure something like this could never happen again," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.



The NIH-funded experiment, which ran from 1946 to 1948, was uncovered by a Wellesley College medical historian. It apparently was conducted to test if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent some sexually transmitted infections. The study came up with no useful information and was hidden for decades.



"We are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said yesterday.



President Barack Obama called Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, later Friday to apologise. Clinton had called to apologise the night before.



"Obviously this is shocking, it's tragic, it's reprehensible," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "It's tragic and the US by all means apologises to all those who were impacted."



Guatemalan Embassy official Fernando de la Cerda said his country hadn't known anything about the experiment until Clinton called to apologise Thursday night.



"We appreciate this gesture from the USA, acknowledging the mistake and apologising," he said. "This must not affect the bilateral relationship."



Strict regulations today make clear that it is unethical to experiment on people without their consent, and require special steps for any work with such vulnerable populations as prisoners. But such regulations didn't exist in the 1940s.



The US government ordered two independent investigations to uncover exactly what happened in Guatemala and to make sure current bioethics rules are adequate. They will be led by the prestigious Institute of Medicine and the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.



Wellesley College historian Susan Reverby made the discovery while combing the archived records of Dr. John Cutler, a government researcher involved in the Tuskegee study that from 1932 to 1972 tracked 600 black men in Alabama who had syphilis without ever offering them treatment.



She discovered that Cutler also led the Guatemala project that went a step further: A total of 696 men and women were exposed to syphilis or in some cases gonorrhea — through jail visits by prostitutes or, when that didn't infect enough people, by deliberately inoculating them. They were offered penicillin, but it wasn't clear how many were infected and how many were successfully treated.



She reported that the US had gained permission from Guatemalan officials to conduct the study, but did not inform the experimental subjects.



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.



Reverby, whose work was first reported by NBC News, made the discovery last year and gave a speech about it at a medical historians' meeting in May, which a US health official heard. She provided her findings to the government the next month, resulting in yesterday's apology, and has posted them on her website.



The revelation of abuses by a US medical research program is only the latest chapter in the United States' troubled history with the impoverished Central American nation, which has a per capita gross domestic product about half of that of the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.



The US helped topple the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 and backed several hardline governments during a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 and cost 200,000 lives.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada