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Doctors Deliberately Infected People
U.S. government researchers violated ethical standards by deliberately infecting Guatemalan prison inmates and mental patients with syphilis for an experiment in the 1940s, according to a presidential commission.
Disturbingly, it was just a decade earlier when in 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) promised 400 black men from Alabama south free treatment for “bad blood,” a euphemism for syphilis which was epidemic in the area during that time. Treatment for syphilis never came and in fact withheld, for more than forty years when it was scientifically proven to help. Many black men developed blindness, mental illness, and even died. This latest discovery more than sixty years later proves the U.S. government actively infecting people with syphilis. Two deadly public health crimes against people of color committed by the federal government.
The U.S.-funded research in Guatemala did not treat participants as human beings, failing to even inform them they were taking part in research, according to a federal investigative commission. The United States apologized last year for the experiment, which was meant to test the drug penicillin. President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues investigated the syphilis experiment and discussed its key findings in Washington with a final report is due in December.
“They should shock the conscience not in spite of their medical context, but precisely because of it,” said the commission’s chairwoman Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania. “The people who were in the know, did want to keep it secret because if it would become more widely known, it would become the subject of public criticism,” she said.
The commission’s conclusions have consequences for U.S. diplomacy and will impact the ethical discussion surrounding how new drugs are tested on patients, as manufacturers increasingly conduct clinical trials abroad.
PHS officer Dr. John Cutler, a junior scientist at the time, led the Guatemala research from 1946 to 1948 under a grant from the NIH to the Pan American Sanitary Bureau and in collaboration with several Guatemalan agencies. The commission’s investigators said the study of sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis was an important scientific goal at the time, but they found no reasonable excuse for the way in which the study was conducted, noting that it demonstrated “institutional failure.”
The fact that the study was done shortly after the end of World War II, with widespread reporting on the use of prisoners and concentration camp inmates for human experiments should have made the researchers aware of the breach of standards, commission members said. “It was bad science. Regardless of the ethical issues — from a purely scientific standpoint, I found this body of science bereft of any point,” said commission member Dr. Nelson Michael of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Some 1,300 people were infected with venereal disease, more than half of them with syphilis. They included inmates exposed to infected prostitutes brought into jails and male and female patients in a mental hospital. Some subjects had bacteria poured on scrapes made on their genitals, arms or faces.
The patients were ultimately given antibiotic penicillin to test its ability to cure or prevent syphilis. But in one example from archived records, Dr. Cutler noted that one of the mentally ill women he had infected with syphilis appeared to be dying. Still, the woman remained a study subject and was further infected with STDs before she developed grueling side effects and died. Dr. Cutler, who went on to take part in the infamous Tuskegee study, also participated in a 1943 gonorrhea experiment in Indiana. There, prison inmates were deliberately infected but were informed of the study and asked to give consent. Cutler remained unapologetic about his research up until his 2003 death.
Guatemala condemned the tests conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) as a crime against humanity and said last year it would consider taking the case to an international court. Victims of the study are suing the U.S. government.