US ‘sorry’ over syphilis experiment

President Obama apologises to Guatemalan counterpart over tests that deliberately infected hundreds of people in 1940s.

guatemala president alvaro colom
US officials phoned Alvaro Colom to apologise “for all those affected” in the US-led experiment decades ago [AFP]

Barack Obama has personally apologised “for all those affected” in a US-led study that deliberately infected hundreds of prisoners, soldiers and mental patients in Guatemala with sexually-transmitted diseases.

The US president telephoned Alvaro Colom, his Guatemalan counterpart, offering deep regret for the experiment conducted by US health researchers in the Latin American nation in the 1940s.

Obama and other US officials voiced their outrage over the “reprehensible research”, in which hundreds of people were infected with gonorrhea or syphilis and then allowed them to have unprotected sex.

“This is shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible,” Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said.

Obama vowed that all human medical studies conducted today would be held to exacting US and international legal and ethical standards.

Gruesome crime

In an impromptu news conference in Guatemala on Friday, Colom denounced the study and said he was told of the gruesome years-long experiment by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state.

“What happened all those years ago is a crime against humanity and the government reserves the right to lodge a formal legal complaint over it,” Colom said.

“What happened all those years ago is a crime against humanity and the government reserves the right to lodge a formal legal complaint over it”

Alvaro Colom, Guatemala president

However, he acknowledged that the experiments were not the actions of those in power now. 

“We are aware that this is not the policy of the United States… this happened so long ago,” he said.

Clinton called Colom to express her deep regret, saying the injection of Guatemalan citizens was “clearly unethical”.

“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,” Clinton said in a joint statement with Kathleen Sebeliu, the health human services secretary.

“We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologise to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”

Clinton said a thorough investigation was under way and that current regulations would prevent any repeat of similar experiments.

The federal-funded experiment, which ran from 1946 to 1948, was discovered by Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College medical historian, who stumbled upon archived documents on it.

It apparently was conducted to test whether penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infection with sexually transmitted diseases.

Sex workers infected

Initially, the researchers infected female commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, and then allowed them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

“When few of these men became infected, the research approach changed to direct inoculation of soldiers, prisoners and mental hospital patients,” background documents on the study show.

Clinton criticised the US study saying the injection of Guatemalan citizens was “clearly unethical” [EPA]

A total of some 1,500 people took part in the study, which lay hidden for decades.

“The studies went on until 1948 and the records suggest that, despite intentions, not everyone was probably cured,” Reverby said in a statement.

The research was led by John Cutler, a US public health doctor, who was involved in the highly-controversial Tuskegee experiment from 1932 to 1972.

In that study scientists tracked 600 black men in Alabama who had late-stage syphilis but who did not know it, and were never given remedial treatment.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US government body that funded the study, called it “deeply disturbing” and “an appalling example in a dark chapter in the history of medicine”.

Collins said the US surgeon-general in the 1940s, Thomas Parran, appeared to have been aware of the experiment, as were “components” of the Guatemalan government at the time.

He said independent experts under the umbrella of the US Institute of Medicine will conduct a fact-finding probe of the Guatemala study.

The US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will convene international experts to review standards surrounding human medical research, he added.

Source: News Agencies