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

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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Six years after this, of course, the CIA would initiate a coup d'etat against Guatemala's second (and arguably last) democratically elected president, Arbenz. Sixteen years later, the same CIA would prevent a coup intended to oust its puppet dictator, and two years after that, the CIA and the military would start arming the Guatemalan military with gunships and napalm to use on civilians. This support would continue more-or-less (sometimes legally, sometimes not) until public pressure would finally (officially) cut off military aid in 1990, only to have it resumed again in 2005 under the George W. Bush administration, now as part of the "War Against Terrorism," which would then be continued by the Obama administration.

By my reckoning, the US government owes the Guatemalan people a bit more than a telephone call...

Michael, the fact that you tested stuff on your soldiers does NOT give this testing reason to have done so in anoher country NOR to my fellow Guatemalans.
You must be young to even consider this be ok.

Shades of Tuskegee and the experimentation there during World War II. So it isn't a surprise, but just SOP for the times. If we're doing it now, that would be a BIG surprise. But the 40s ? Most of the people alive today weren't then, or aren't old enough to really feel any significance for that event. Yeah, it's tragic and a travesty, but remember that we also tested our own soldiers by exposing them to nuclear blasts at a distance, tested drugs on our own intelligence people in the United States, and had low scale experimentation on own convicts here as well. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that certain lives were considered cheap.

By the way, did we ever apologize for killing 200,000 Indians (insurgents) during Reagan's presidency? Or will we wait until the perps are all dead?


Oh hypocrisy, how I love thee, let me count the ways. This crime has been "secret", which means illegal for decades and now after all the parties to this Hitlerian maneuver are dead, Amercia asks for forgiveness and when the occasion rises again, like another pre-emptive war, we well back, a la Arnold. In reality we are as evil as those governments we so hypocritically criticize. The list of government malfeasances is as thick as The Bible and nobody dares to bell the cat, AKA America.

Just another factual instance of color, nationality, and ethnicity exploitation by the US that conservative right wingers will demand be left out of the history texts.

Someone might want to take a look at the World 'Health' Organization while they're at it.

who was in charge of this study, Adolf Hitler?

Don't appologize for me. I have no inherited collective guilt on this one. I wasn't alive then and ever were I it wasn't me but the Democratic politicians in Washington who did this. If the Democrats feel collective inherited guilt then Hillary and Nancy and Obama can apologize for themselves. Leave the rest of us out of it.

Is this a continuation of the Obama Appology World Tour where he apologizes to the world for America.

Maybe we should give $1M to each Guatamalan or allow them to be instant US Citizens.

OK. Apology made, likely not accepted without cash, but end of story.

I think Hillary should aplogize to the US people for her idiot husband.

Was John Cutler Josef Mengele's resident?

Tuskeegee and this does not sound much different than the hidden experiments of WWII in Nazi Germany.

Don't expect full disclosure in the "investigation" President Obama proposes. This all took place while Democrats ran the Whitehouse.

...and we all thought they only do this kind of thing to African Americans.

Uncle Sam also smuggles dope...just ask Freeway Ricky..the only one who was sent to jail..Yet Ole Oly North and that hack actor Ronny Regan rode off into the sunset...sic

No wonder 9-11s happens.

Wait till they disclose the testing done here in the USA. with Nuclear and Biological agents. There's some gnarly stuff went down here. Rent or read The Philadelphia Experiment sometime, that really happened. You'll swear it is science fiction, but it's science fact. All this bird flu and swine flu came from biological warfare weapons testing and will be with us till the end of time. Bless the USA.

As a country, we were wrong to do excuses. This occured during a time when racial minorities were not seen as "true Americans" and/or were seen as less than human. The apology, investigation and presumably future compensation to any surviving victims or their survivors is appropriate.

This is the dark place where racism can take you, but it would be wrong to say that we have not progressed as a nation since then. The Civil Rights movement did a lot to open the eyes of Americans and enabled them to see Americans of all colors as their countrymen and as equals...and peoples of other countries were seen as equals when viewed through the prism of human rights thanks to the efforts of the Human Rights movement. That task may not yet be complete, but it is undeniable that we have come a long, long way.

While it shouldn't have been done in the first place, most countries would never admit that anything like this had ever occurred...let alone be open about investigating it or being open to compensating the surviving victims or and families.

I am completely disgusted. A s if we haven't messed with the Guatemalan people enough over the years (like over throwing their government etc..) I say we give all direct descendants of the victims one million dollars, and instant American citizenship if they want it. How many more times do I have to be ashamed to be an American citizen ?

I wonder if our Federal government has ever done secret experiments on the American public without us knowing about it. Regardless, the U.S. Public Health Service of the 40's were apparently mentally ill racists and Dr. Frankenstein’s.

wow that is really sick
i wonder what my Mexican cousin whos wife is Guatemalan would say?
Hes a christian so hes all about forgiveness.
whats the saying- la mentira dura mientras la verdad aparece.


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