U.S. Infected Guatemalans With Syphilis

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The U.S. government has just apologized for deliberately infecting Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea as part of a "sexually transmitted disease inoculation study" back in the '40s. What study? It turns out the program was recently rediscovered by Wellesley professor Susan Reverby, who says the Guatemalan government knew about, gave permission for, and were even involved in the tests. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom, though, has apparently "accused the US of crimes against humanity," according to the BBC. In one method, infected prostitutes were used to give prisoners syphilis without their knowledge. In another case, mental health patients were given syphilis through abrasion and injection, also without their knowledge. The reaction has been one of shock and horror.

  • Not Clear the Subjects/Victims Were Cured  New York Magazine's Nitasha Tiku and NPR's Scott Hensley are two of many to mention this. It is certain that many of the subjects were treated with penicillin, but not that they were given sufficient doses.
  • Makes You Wonder About Current Activities  "I wonder what secret horrors going on now President Malia Obama and Vice President William Jefferson Mezvinsky will be apologizing for in fifty years," writes Melissa McEwan at Shakesville.
  • Scientists Realized the Ethical Problems at the Time  Susan Reverby, the Wellesley professor who uncovered the story, writes in her paper of peripheral researchers' misgivings, and their fear that, if news of the study were to get out, it would raise an outcry. Interestingly, those who expressed concern seemed more worried about the experiments on mental health patients than those on prisoners, as the mental health patients might be deemed incapable of giving consent, even if they were fully informed (the prisoners knew they were being "inoculated," but not that they were in fact being given active cultures of syphilis).
  • Story Could Have an Effect on Modern Studies  "The revelations could further set back the participation of minority subjects in clinical researct," notes NPR's Scott Hensley, despite there being far stricter standards today that would not allow such trials.

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