Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Unethical U.S.-funded research caused 83 deaths in Guatemala

In a US-funded program during the 1940’s designed to study the effects of penicillin, researchers infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, psychiatric patients and sex workers with syphilis and gonorrhea, none of whom were informed of the procedure. In total, approximately 1,300 people were exposed to or inoculated with venereal diseases between 1946 and 1948, less than 700 of which received any kind of treatment.

President Obama established the Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethics in November of last year to investigate the research program after it was discovered last year (see article below). The Commission plans to publish its first full report next month outlining the historical facts of the case. So far, the Commission has declared the syphilis project an ‘institutional failure’ and a ‘shameful piece of medical history,’ recognizing the grave violations and inhumane conduct that took place in Guatemala. Furthermore, according to the commission, the program may have resulted in the deaths of 83 people unwillingly infected with diseases.

Documentation of the research was acquired by the National Security Archives earlier this year, ‘consisting of some 12,000 pages of reports, correspondence, patient records, and graphic
photographs of the effects of syphilis infection on Guatemalan subjects.’ According to the reports, the initial experiments were preformed in Guatemala’s Central Penitentiary, where U.S. researchers paid infected prostitutes to transmit the diseases by having sex with prisoners. When this method proved inefficient, the team of researchers began targeting the country’s insane asylum, where they could easily access hundreds of vulnerable men and women unable to speak for or understand their rights. The NSA analysis of the documents reveals that the doctors and scientists involved were fully aware that what they were doing was unethical and violated research standards, even skeptical at times.

In an interview with Prensa Libre, Amy Gutmann, the president of the Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethics, declared that the researchers and doctors who participated in the syphilis study are morally responsible, given that they were well aware of the ethical standards they were violating. Gutmann said that the commission plans to recommend compensation to the victims in its upcoming published report. The Guatemalan government announced on August 29th that five survivors of the syphilis and gonorrhea experiments will be medically examined to determine any lasting effects of their infections. Vice-president Rafael Espada made the announcement after the presidential commission revealed that the experiments left 83 people dead.

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