A Wellesley College professor has discovered that the US government in the 1940s infected Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases in an experiment conducted without the knowledge of the 1,500 men and women -- some of them patients in a mental hospital.
Professor Susan M. Reverby, who has written extensively about the infamous Tuskegee Study in the United States, uncovered documents detailing the Guatemalan experiments while researching the Tuskegee episode and shared her discovery with US government officials.
During a news briefing early this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama plans to call the Guatemalan leader personally today and apologize.
"This is tragic, and the United States by all means apologizes to all those who were impacted by this," Gibbs said.
In a joint statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius denounced the experiments, apologized, and pledged to never repeat the mistakes of the past.
"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," the secretaries said in the statement. "We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices."
The US government has asked the Institute of Medicine, an independent agency that conducts health investigations for Congress, to conduct a review of the experiments, which happened from 1946 to 1948.
Separately, a presidential commission on bioethics will charter an international panel of specialists to explore the current state of medical research on humans around the world and ensure that the atrocities of the past cannot recur.
Top US government officials last night contacted Guatemala's president, Álvaro Colom Caballeros, and its ambassador to Washington. Clinton called Colom "to express her personal outrage and deep regret that such reprehensible research could occur," Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said during a press briefing.
Any decision about making reparations -- financial or otherwise -- will await the outcome of the two study panels, officials said.
A representative of the Guatemalan government said today his nation will investigate, too -- an investigation that will look, in part, at the culpability of officials in that country. The records of the experiment suggest that Guatemalan government officials were fully aware of the tests, sanctioned them, and may have done so in exchange for stockpiles of penicillin. At one institution, the US Public Health Service even supplied a motion picture projector to keep inmates entertained.
In a synopsis of a report scheduled to appear in January's Journal of Policy History, Reverby writes that the US Public Health Service embarked on the Guatemalan experiments even as it continued the long-condemned work in Tuskegee, where men with syphilis were left untreated so that researchers could follow the progression of the disease. The Guatemala experiments were conducted against the backdrop of great excitement among doctors about the emergence of antibiotics, and researchers -- engaging in practices now regarded as deeply unethical -- schemed to expose vulnerable subjects to further their understanding of the new drugs and STDs.
Reverby writes that US physicians selected men in a Guatemalan penitentiary and army barracks as well as men and women in a mental hospital for the study. Initially, the researchers used prostitutes to attempt to infect the prisoners. When that approach largely failed, the doctors then "did direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured onto the men's penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded."
The researchers, whose work was underwritten by the National Institutes of Health and sanctioned by the surgeon general at the time, wanted to know whether penicillin could prevent -- not just cure -- syphilis. They also hoped their experiments would lead to better blood tests and dosing strategies for antibiotics.
In one of the statements released this morning, US government officials said that most -- although not all -- of the unwitting subjects were treated. In addition to syphilis, the government statement says that the subjects were exposed to two other STDs, gonorrhea and chancroid. At least one person died, the statement said, although it is unclear whether the death was caused by the experiments or another health problem.
Until Reverby discovered the documents describing the experiment, they had sat secreted away at the University of Pittsburgh in the papers of the researcher in charge of the Guatemala project.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, said in a telephone press briefing today that the experiment "represents an appalling example from a dark chapter in the history of medicine."
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