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Author Who Revealed Unethical Guatemala Syphilis Study Writes For Bioethics Forum

October 8, 2010

Findings from the past have implications for research in the future

The researcher whose revelations about unethical U.S. studies on syphilis in Guatemala in the 1940′s led to apologies from the Obama administration last week has written a commentary for Bioethics Forum, the Hastings Center’s online publication. She calls for the need to learn from history to better protect human subjects in the developing world.

Susan M. Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College, describes how she unearthed documents about the study by accident while doing research for a book on the Tuskegee syphilis study. The documents, hidden in the University of Pittsburgh archives, revealed that doctors from the U.S. Public Health Service infected prisoners, soldiers, and psychiatric patients with syphilis to find out if penicillin could prevent the disease from taking hold. “They knew this was on the ethical edge,” she writes in Bioethics Forum.

Reverby describes the media frenzy that followed the announcement last week. “The press coverage and reaction has been overwhelming, crossing the world in just more than a nanosecond,” she writes, adding that “it has been difficult to do what historians do best: explain details and context.” She concludes her Bioethics Forum piece with her hope that the Guatemala findings can serve as a guide to strengthen human subjects protections, especially in trials conducted abroad. “The debate on the necessity for protections in the developing world continues and perhaps this will be a reminder of why they matter,” she writes. Nearly half of all U.S.-based clinical trials are conducted overseas.

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