U.S. researchers used inmates in experiments.
Credit: AFP

The U.S. has finished its investigation of an abusive research experiment on Guatemalan prisoners in the 1940s.

If you aren’t familiar with the case, here’s what happened:

Between 1946 and 1948, U.S. researchers conducted a study on the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, using government funding. Their test subjects: Guatemalan prisoners, who were neither informed of the test nor asked for consent.

The inmates were infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, and the researchers watched what happened. In some cases, they didn’t even treat the men, though a few received the penicillin needed to cure them.

The case came to light last year after a professor delving through old archives uncovered incriminating documents. 

In a rare move, the U.S. government publicly apologized to the Guatemalan government. President Barack Obama ordered a report on what had happened, and an inquiry to ensure patients today are sufficiently protected from unethical researchers.

That report is finished, and due to be released in September. What's not clear: whether surviving victims or their families will be compensated. 

This isn’t the first time U.S. researchers have committed gross ethical violations.

Remember Tuskegee? In 1932, researchers began a study using several hundred poor black men in Alabama, some of whom had syphilis.

Fifteen years later, researchers had found that penicillin cured the disease. They didn’t bother to tell the men, or to treat them properly. The study lasted 40 years. 

It would be nice to think that these horrifying practices were just anomalies. But then there’s this quote from the director of the National Institute of Health from the time the Guatemala study emerged:

NIH director Collins told reporters there were probably more than 40 other similar studies conducted on unwitting subjects in the United States before the practice was banned decades ago.

A U.S. commission on bioethics is holding hearings on what the Guatemala report found, and you can check out the webcast here

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