Researchers knew syphilis work in Guatemala was wrong - 09-14-2011, 05:51 PM
Researchers knew syphilis work
in Guatemala was wrong
Senior US researchers have been condemned for deliberately and covertly
infecting more than 1000 Guatemalans with syphilis and other sexually
transmitted diseases in the 1940s.
The judgement comes in a report released this week after a
nine-month-long inquiry into the experiments, which were conducted
between 1946 and 1948.
The report, Ethically Impossible: STD research in Guatemala from 1946 to
1948, concludes that culpability for the events of 65 years ago extends
beyond the principal researcher, John Cutler of the University of Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. Senior officials in the US Public Health Service, and even its
chief, the surgeon general himself, knew of and supported Cutler's
Cutler and his colleagues deliberately infected 1308 prisoners, soldiers and
psychiatric patients with the intention of finding treatments for syphilis,
gonorrhoea and chancroid, a lesser-known sexually transmitted disease.
The experiments were brought to light last year by Susan Reverby of the
University of Pittsburgh. The revelations led President Barack Obama and
secretary of state Hillary Clinton to apologise to the Guatemalan people last
The commission's report, ordered by the president after the revelations,
found "no evidence that consent was sought or obtained from the individual
subjects… on the contrary, there were examples of active deceit".
In a covering letter to the president, published with the report, the actions
are described as "especially egregious" because "many of the individuals
involved held positions of public institutional responsibility".
Statements made at the time are self-incriminating. Cutler is quoted in the
report as emphasising the need to increase secrecy and limit information
about the project to those "who can be trusted not to talk".
They knew better
Much of the evidence that the wrongdoing was preconceived came from an
earlier, very similar experiment on sexually transmitted diseases at Terre
Haute prison, Indiana, in 1943 and 1944. In this case, a virtually identical
team of researchers – including Cutler – accepted the need to obtain full
informed consent from participating inmates, showing that they knew this
to be a necessary precondition at the time for research involving humans.
Yet they failed to employ these same ethical safeguards in Guatemala two
years later, despite the publication in 1947 of the Nuremberg code, which
upheld the principle of informed consent as the cornerstone for all medical
"The Terre Haute work indicates that these concepts were not unfamiliar to
the researchers," says the commission. "In this sense, the defence of
culturally induced moral ignorance is inadequate."
The commission concludes by warning against further abuses. "We should
be ever vigilant to ensure that such reprehensible exploitation of our fellow
human beings is never repeated."
To that end, the commission is still engaged in an investigation to judge
how strictly current ethical standards are upheld in clinical trials around the
world – a report due in December.
Researchers knew syphilis work in Guatemala was wrong - health - 14 September 2011 - New Scientist
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