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U.S. apologizes for experiment that infected Guatemalans with syphilis

October 1, 2010 |  2:14 pm

Kathleen Sebelius AFP

The United States apologized to Guatemala on Friday for a 1940s research program in which Guatemalans were intentionally infected with the sexually transmitted disease syphilis without their knowledge or consent.

Between 1946 and 1948, the agency then known as the U.S. Public Health Service infected Guatemalan sex workers, prison inmates, and mental health patients with syphilis. The program was conducted in order to examine whether penicillin, relatively new at the time, could be used to treat the disease. It was led by John Cutler, the U.S. doctor who later led the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men in Alabama infected with syphilis were observed without receiving treatment.

The Guatemala program was "clearly unethical," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement.

"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 statement said. "We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices."

Archival research conducted by medical historian Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, uncovered the Guatemala syphilis experiment. Reverby, who has written extensively on the Tuskegee experiment, found documents on the Guatemala program at a library at the University of Pittsburgh. The professor discovered that the Public Health Service sent Cutler to Guatemala to study syphilis transmission, with the backing of Guatemalan health officials and the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau.

Cutler and Guatemalan doctor Juan Funes induced the disease by allowing prison inmates to have sex with infected prostitutes, or by inoculating the syphilis-causing bacteria in inmates through a solution. The patients, who remained uninformed, were then given penicillin to see if the antibiotic could treat syphilis.

"In addition to the penitentiary, the studies took place in an insane asylum and an army barracks," Reverby said in a Wellesley College release on her work. "In total, 696 men and women were exposed to the disease and then offered penicillin. The studies went on until 1948 and the records suggest that despite intentions not everyone was probably cured."

The Wellesley release has more details. U.S. Health and Human Services has posted an information page on the Guatemala syphilis study at its website.

President Barack Obama called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on Friday to apologize on behalf of the United States for the 1940s syphilis program. Colom's government posted a message on its official website condemning the experiment and requesting a full investigation, which the U.S. has promised to carry out.

A separate statement on the government's Facebook page said Guatemala "reserves the right" to further denounce the experiment in an international forum, but did not elaborate.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Credit: Agence France-Presse

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