News / Americas

1940's STD Experiments in Guatemala Violated Rights, US Commission Finds

A U.S. commission says researchers involved with a 1940's U.S.-funded study in Guatemala deliberately exposed vulnerable individuals to sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent or knowledge.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues issued its assessment Monday as it prepares to send a report on the matter to U.S. President Barack Obama next month.

Report findings

The commission concluded that the scientists used no informed consent procedures and exposed and infected people who were too vulnerable to object, such as children, mental patients, prisoners and commercial sex workers.  The commission said the researchers failed to act in accordance with "minimal respect of human rights" and that the work was sloppily done and ethically objectionable.  Additionally, the commission said the investigators deliberately kept their actions secret from people in the trial as well as the U.S. and Guatemalan scientific communities.

The commission found that more than 5,500 Guatemalans were involved in the medical experiments.  The research took place in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948.  The study aimed to test the effectiveness of penicillin, which then was a relatively new treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Guatemala's reaction

Last year, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom described the 1940's study as a crime against humanity.  President Obama also offered his apologies for the study.

In a joint statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius expressed outrage that such research could have been conducted under the guise of public health.

Results were never published.  The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Details of the study were discovered in the papers of the late Dr. John Cutler, a U.S. public health investigator who helped conduct the research.  Cutler also was later involved in similar experiments on African-American men at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  In that study, some of the men were infected with syphilis but were never treated.

Professor Susan Reverby at Wellesley College in the northeastern state of Massachusetts uncovered the Guatemala study while conducting research into the Tuskegee experiments.

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