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U.S. Scientists Conducted "Unethical" Experiments On Guatemalans In 1940s

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      By Rob Stein
      Washington Post
      August 29, 2011



      U.S. government researchers who purposely infected unwitting subjects
      with sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala in the 1940s had
      obtained consent a few years earlier before conducting similar
      experiments in Indiana, investigators reported Monday.

      The stark contrast between how the U.S. Public Health Service scientists
      experimented with Americans and Guatemalans clearly shows that
      researchers knew their conduct was unethical, according to members of
      the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, which is
      investigating the experiments.

      “These researchers knew these were unethical experiments, and they
      conducted them anyway,” said Raju Kucherlapati of Harvard Medical
      School, a commission member. “That is what is reprehensible.”

      At least 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children were
      drafted into the experiments, including at least 1,300 who were exposed
      to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid,
      the commission reported. At least 83 subjects died, although the
      commission could not determine how many of the deaths were directly
      caused by the experiments, they said.

      “This is a dark chapter in our history. It is important to shine the
      light of day on it. We owe it to the people of Guatemala who were
      experimented on, and we owe it to ourselves to recognize what a dark
      chapter it was,” said Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, the
      commission’s chairwoman.

      The revelations came on the opening day of a two-day hearing the
      commission convened to review the findings of its investigation.
      President Obama ordered the probe when the experiments were revealed in
      October. Investigators reviewed more than 125,000 documents from public
      and private archives around the country and conducted a fact-finding
      trip to the Central American nation.

      The Guatemalan government is conducting its own investigation. The
      experiments were approved by some Guatemalan officials.

      “Actually cruel and inhuman conduct took place,” said Anita L. Allen of
      the University of Pennsylvania. “These are very grave human rights

      In one case described during Monday’s two-hour hearing, a woman who was
      infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of
      treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her
      eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died
      six months later.

      The ultimate goal of the Guatemalan research was to determine whether
      taking penicillin after sex would protect against syphilis, gonorrhea
      and chancroid. The question was a medical priority at the time,
      especially in the military. The Guatemalan experiments, carried out
      between 1946 and 1948, aimed to find a reliable way of infecting
      subjects for future studies.

      The research included infecting prisoners by bringing them prostitutes
      who were either already carrying the diseases or were purposely infected
      by the researchers. Doctors also poured bacteria onto wounds they had
      opened with needles on prisoners’ penises, faces and arms. In some
      cases, infectious material was injected into their spines, the
      commission reported.

      The researchers conducted similar experiments on soldiers in an army
      barracks and on men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital.
      The researchers took blood samples from children at the National
      Orphanage, although they did not purposely infect them.

      In the studies conducted in Indiana, researchers exposed 241 inmates in
      Terre Haute to gonorrhea in 1943 and 1944. But there, the researchers
      explained the experiments in advance in detail and experimented only on
      the prisoners who volunteered. In contrast, many of the same researchers
      who began experimenting on Guatemalans a few years later actively hid
      what they were doing and never tried to obtain permission, the
      commission found.

      About 700 of the Guatemalan subjects were treated for the sexually
      transmitted diseases, but it remains unclear whether they were treated
      adequately or what became of them. Gonorrhea can cause a variety of
      complications, including infertility. Chancroid can cause painful
      ulcers. Syphilis can cause blindness, major organ damage, paralysis,
      dementia and death.

      Susan M. Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts,
      discovered the Guatemalan experiments while doing research for a book on
      the infamous Tuskegee studies in Alabama. Reverby found papers from John
      C. Cutler, a doctor with the federal government’s Public Health Service.
      Cutler had participated in the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of
      African American men with late-stage syphilis were left untreated to
      study the disease between 1932 and 1972. Cutler died in 2003.

      After sending Obama a report in September, the commission will meet
      again in November to discuss whether current protections are adequate
      for research subjects internationally and in the United States and will
      issue a final report in December.


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