Realities of medical experiments conducted in Guatemala continue to make their way to the public eye and additional details make the events of the 1940s even more deplorable. Huntsville residents are equally shocked by the information disclosed Monday by a presidential panel. Among them: A decision to re-infect a dying woman in a syphilis study.
The Guatemala experiments are already a huge blemish on America’s history, but panel members say the new details indicate researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.
“The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second,” said Anita Allen, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
From 1946-48, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies to do medical research that involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases. The research was paid for by the U.S. government.
Researchers were reportedly trying to see if penicillin could prevent infections in the 1,300 people exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. Those infected included soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis. Penicillin was relatively new at that time.
The commission revealed Monday that only about 700 of those infected received some sort of treatment. More than 80 people died during the tests, but it is not known whether their deaths were caused by the experiments.
The research came up with no useful medical information, according to some experts. It was hidden for decades but came to light last year, after a Wellesley College medical historian discovered records among the papers of Dr. John Cutler, who led the experiments.
President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize. He also ordered his bioethics commission to review the Guatemala experiments. The final report is due next month.
Research has made significant strides since those days, so has treatment for many STDs. If you live in Huntsville and have questions about an STD, check with the AIDS Action Coalition.