Mexico City – Exposing a dark page in its history, the U.S. government acknowledged Friday that its scientists had infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis in experiments conducted from 1946 to 1948 in “appalling violations” of medical ethics.
Under the experiments, U.S. scientists sent prostitutes infected with syphilis into a Guatemalan prison, mental health hospital and army barracks to test possible cures.
“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,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement.
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“We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
The statement said current regulations prohibit such “appalling violations” of ethics regarding human medical research and added that the two departments would launch “a thorough investigation” of the 1946-1948 tests in Guatemala.
Clinton called President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala Thursday night “to express her personal outrage, deep regret,” Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant Secretary of State for Western hemisphere affairs, said in a Twitter message.
Valenzuela said in another posting that he’d spoken with Guatemala’s ambassador to Washington to express a U.S. “commitment to human dignity and respect for the people.
Friday’s acknowledgment shed new light on U.S. medical experiments that included the infamous “Tuskegee” syphilis study in which scientists observed, but didn’t treat, hundreds of African American men with late-stage syphilis in Macon County, Alabama, over a period of decades starting in 1932.
A Wellesley College professor of history and women’s studies, Susan M. Reverby, who helped uncover the secret U.S. research in Guatemala, offered details of the project in a paper on her website (Normal Exposure’ and Inoculation Syphilis: A PHS ‘Tuskegee’ Doctor in Guatemala, 1946-48)
She found that a Public Health Service team led by physician John C. Cutler infected 696 subjects from the Guatemalan National Penitentiary, an army barracks, and a national mental health hospital.
The U.S. physicians did not get permission from the subjects, she wrote.
“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,” either on to the men’s sexual organs, forearms, face or through spinal injections.
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