News / Americas

US Apologizes for 1940s Medical Experiments in Guatemala

The United States Friday apologized for a U.S.-funded medical study in the 1940's in which Guatemalans were intentionally infected with sexually-transmitted diseases, or STD's.

U.S. officials have launched two investigations of the case and its implications.

The United States has issued an unusual public apology after disclosure this week that Guatemalan prison and mental institution inmates were intentionally infected with diseases in a U.S. funded medical study in the late 1940's.

A joint statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the STD study clearly unethical.

The two Cabinet members said while the events occurred more than six decades ago, they are outraged that such "reprehensible" research could have occurred.

They expressed deep regret for what happened and apologized to all those affected by what they termed abhorrent research practices.

They said the conduct does not represent the United States' values, commitment to human dignity, or "great respect" for the people of Guatemala.

Officials say little documentation remains of the unpublished study, in which U.S. medical researchers infected Guatamalan inmates with gonorrhea and syphilis, without their knowledge or permission, from 1946 to 1948.

In a telephone conference call with reporters, the director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said some Guatemalan officials knew of the project at the time.

He said most of those infected were given penicillin, a relatively-new treatment at the time, to test its effectiveness.

But he said the study was ridden with serious ethical violations and that such activity would never be approved or condoned today.

"I want to emphasize that today, regulations that govern research funded by the United States government, whether conducted domestically or internationally, would absolutely prohibit this type of study," said Collins.  "Today, researchers must fully explain the risks associated with their study to all research participants, and participants must indicate their informed consent."

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, who joined in the conference call, said the United States has expressed its regret about the study directly to Guatemala.

"Secretary Clinton called President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala last night to express her personal outrage and deep regret that such reprehensible research could have occurred, making clear that this does not represent the values of the United States," said Valenzuela.  "She reaffirmed the importance of our relationship with Guatemala and her respect for the Guatemalan people."

Secretaries Clinton and Sebelius said the National Institutes of Health will conduct a thorough investigation of the case.

They said the White House Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will do a parallel review to ensure that all human medical research, in the United States and abroad, meets rigorous ethical standards.

Officials say the question of possible compensation for any surviving participants of the study in Guatemala will await the results of the investigation.

The professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who turned up evidence of the Guatemala project said its chief researcher was also involved in a notorious 1930s study, in which African-American men in Alabama  were infected with syphilis and never treated.

NIH director Collins told reporters there were probably more than 40 other similar studies conducted on unwitting subjects in the United States before the practice was banned decades ago.

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