According to the report, the Guatemalan project, co-sponsored by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and what is now the Pan-American Health Organization, was conducted with the cooperation of the Guatemalan government.
Comparisons with another dark chapter in American medical history immediately spring to mind — the infamous 40-year Tuskegee experiment. In that Alabama study, begun in 1932, almost 400 black men were told they were being treated for syphilis, but were actually denied treatment. The experiment lasted until exposed by press reports in 1972.
In fact, Reverby, who has written extensively about Tuskegee, discovered the Guatemalan evidence while furthering her research on the Alabama study. She noted the persistent and hard-to-debunk myth surrounding Tuskegee: that the Alabama subjects were secretly infected with syphilis. In fact, the men had already contracted the disease; they were simply not treated, in order that researchers might study the effects of syphilis on the body.
However, the Tuskegee “myth” actually occurred in Guatemala — U.S. government researchers did deliberately infect the Guatemalans with sexually-transmitted diseases (syphilis and gonorrhea). They then treated them with penicillin, in an attempt to determine whether the drug could actually prevent infection, not just cure it. Fraught with difficulties, the experiment never provided any useful information, and the records were hidden.
Reverby’s report examines the work of the Public Health Service’s Dr. John Cutler, a key researcher in the Tuskegee experiment, who was also involved in the Guatemalan study. His records are now in the University of Pittsburgh archives.
In the newly-exposed Guatemalan study, after the subjects were infected with the syphilis bacteria, through visits with prostitutes with the disease as well as direct inoculations, many were encouraged to pass the infection on to others. It’s unclear whether they were later cured or given proper treatment, Reverby notes. The report also reveals that the prostitutes’ visits were paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars via PHS funds.
On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized for actions taken by the PHS. "The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical," according to the joint statement. "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."
On Thursday, Sep. 30, Hillary Clinton called Guatemalan President Alvaro Caballeros (picture, above) to reaffirm the importance of the relationship between the two countries.
"The people of Guatemala are our close friends and neighbors in the Americas," the government statement says. "As we move forward to better understand this appalling event, we reaffirm the importance of our relationship with Guatemala, and our respect for the Guatemalan people, as well as our commitment to the highest standards of ethics in medical research.”
Robert Bazell, chief science and health correspondent for NBC News, wrote, "In addition to the apology, the U.S. is setting up commissions to ensure that human medical research conducted around the globe meets ‘rigorous ethical standards.’ U.S. officials are also launching investigations to uncover exactly what happened during the experiments."
During a conference call Friday with NIH Director Francis Collins and Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela, officials noted there were no formalized regulations regarding protection of human studies during the 1940s.
In her report, Reverby discusses yet another disturbing PHS experiment. In 1949, prisoners at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, were deliberately injected with gonorrhea. However, difficulties in the study led to abandonment of the project.
Reverby’s report reveals the extent to which the U.S. Public Health Service was involved in Latin America, but doesn’t conclusively answer the question of which top U. S. officials approved the study, including the deception practiced on the Guatemalan subjects.
Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom Caballeros meet at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 18, 2010: AP Images