Lifestyle & Belief

U.S. syphilis experiment in Guatemala "infected 1,300"


Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom at a press conference in Guatemala City on October 1, 2010 where he described as "crimes of lese-humanity" the study conducted by the United States more than 60 years ago in Guatemala in which US-led researchers infected hundreds of people with syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent. The study conducted between 1946 and 1948 was "clearly unethical," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement issued jointly with Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in which the two officials extended an apology to "all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices."



Guatemalan authorities have identified 1,300 people who may have been infected in U.S. syphilis experiments on soldiers, prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients in the 1940s. The Guatemalan government plans to run ads seeking to identify victims of the research program, the country's vice president said.

A search of hospital, health department, military and prison records identified about 1,300 people who may have been deliberately infected with syphilis or gonorrhea without their knowledge or consent, the Associated Press reports.

"As of today, we have found three or four patients who are still alive," Vice President Rafael Espada said.

Records uncovered last year suggest that researchers attempted to infect about 700 prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis, and that about 770 people, including soldiers, were exposed to gonorrhea. It is unclear whether all subjects in the study had been successfully infected, or whether they were infected with both sexually transmitted diseases.

The experiments took place in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948, involving American and Guatemalan doctors.

The study’s subjects were treated with the antibiotic penicillin, with one of the goals of the research to compare effectiveness of different penicillin dosages against venereal diseases. At the time, penicillin was a new drug.

The National Institutes of Health-funded study was uncovered by Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Reverby said that the study came up with no useful data, and was hidden for decades. Records of the experiments suggest that despite intentions, it is likely that not everyone was cured, she said.

In October, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said in a statement that he considered the experiments to be “crimes against humanity,” and that Guatemala “reserves the right to denounce them in an international court.”

U.S. President Barack Obama called Colom to apologize for the experiments.

"The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement released in October.

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

Guatemalan human rights activists have called for the victims' families to be compensated, but the government has not yet taken a position on what kind of reparations should be made.

A full report on the results of the investigation was scheduled to be released this week, but has been delayed due to government attention on the massacre of 27 farm workers by suspected drug traffickers at a ranch in northern Peten province, the AP reports.