U.S. Gov. Secretly Infected Thousands of Guatemalans with STDs

Government scientists infected 5,500 Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea between 1946 and 1948 to study the effects of penicillin, according to recent findings of a U.S. presidential panel.

By Jorge Rivas Aug 30, 2011

United States government scientists infected 5,500 Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea between 1946 and 1948 to study the effects of penicillin, according to recent findings of a U.S. presidential panel investigation set up by President Obama. 

The Guatemalans forced to participate received no such explanation and did not give informed consent. In fact, of the estimated 5,500 participants, only about 700 received some sort of treatment.

"The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second," Anita Allen, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues told the Associated Press.

From 1946 to 1948, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with the Guatemalan government to conduct medical research paid for by the US government that involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases.

The Commission said some 5,500 Guatemalans were involved in the research with at least 1,300 Guatemalans deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid, another sexually transmitted disease. The patients who were forced to participate included soldiers, sex workers, prisoners and mental health patients.

The researchers were able to conduct any experiments they wanted to with the Guatemalans wit virtually no oversight. The AP reports on two of what they called the "most disturbing" experiments:

Seven women with epilepsy, who were housed at Guatemala’s Asilo de Alienados (Home for the Insane), were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, a risky procedure. The researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy. The women each got bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of the unsterilized injections, but were treated.

Perhaps the most disturbing details involved a female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhea in her eyes and elsewhere. Six months later she died.

Experts today say the research produced no useful medical information. The study was hidden for decades until last year when a Wellesley College medical historian discovered records among the papers of Dr. John Cutler, who led the experiments.

President Obama has called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize. The study currently being conducted to review the Guatemalan experiments was commissioned by the president.

The commission is due to publish its first report next month outlining the historical facts.