Controversial Medical Experiments: Syphilis

Guatemala Syphilis Experiment

Interested in testing the effectiveness of penicillin as a treatment for venereal disease, from 1946 to 1948 American public health doctors ran an innoculation experiment now considered "abhorrent." Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. doctors deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalans — prison inmates, mental patients, and soldiers — with syphilis. In Fall 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to the Guatemalan government and the survivors and descendants of those infected. Clinton referred to the experiments as “clearly unethical.” During the study, the NIH paid syphilis-infected prostitutes to have sex with the prisoners. Other invasive methods to infect the subjects included pouring bacteria on their scraped genitalia.

Why did the NIH do it?

According to Susan M. Reverby, the professor at Wellesley College whose research brought the Guatemala experiments to light, the United States Public Health Service “was deeply interested in whether penicillin could be used to prevent, not just cure, early syphilis infection." Growing syphilis in the lab proved difficult, and animal testing was inconclusive about the effects of penicillin on human disease. Led by public health doctor John C. Cutler, the findings were never published; mainly, this is because Cutler's Guatemalan study was discontinued due to medical gossip and the large amount of coveted penicillin he was using. Later, Cutler joined the infamous forty-year Tuskegee, Alabama syphilis experiment. Similarly, this study involved unethical measures and the deception of 399 impoverished African-American sharecroppers.

However, the Guatemalan experiment was much worse than Tuskegee. As stated by Dr. Mark Siegler, director of the University of Chicago Maclean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics:

This is shocking. This is much worse than Tuskegee - at least those men were infected by natural means... It’s ironic - no, it’s worse than that, it’s appalling - that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk."

Modern medical research is far more scrutinized and regulated by organizations like the UK Medical Research Council and the Institutional Review Board. For example, here are the guidelines for the five Institutional Review Boards of the University of Michigan Medical School. Documents like the Belmont Report and the World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki outline ethical principles for the medical community regarding human experimentation. These updated standards ensure that studies like Guatemala and Tuskegee can never officially reoccur.

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