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U.S. Apologizes For Syphilis Study On Guatemalan Inmates

October 3, 2010

The U.S. government has apologized for deliberately infecting hundreds of people in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis as part of medical tests over 60 years ago.

None of the people studied, who were mentally ill patients and prisoners, consented to the research.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom accused the U.S. of the “crimes against humanity.”

U.S. President Barack Obama called Colom to apologize and said the acts ran contrary to American values.

Syphilis causes heart problems, blindness, mental illness and even death.  Also, even though patients were treated, it is not known how many recovered.

Professor Susan Reverby at Wellesley College found evidence of the program.  She said that the Guatemalan government allowed the tests to be done.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Friday that the news was “shocking, it’s tragic, it’s reprehensible.”

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement:  “The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical.”

“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,” the statement said.

The study done by Reverby shows that U.S. government medical researchers infected about 700 people in Guatemala with two sexually transmitted diseases.

The patients were unaware that they had been experimented upon.

The doctors used prostitutes with syphilis to help infect them. 

The patients were then treated for the disease, but it is unclear whether everyone was cured.

Guatemalan human rights activists called for the victims’ families to be compensated, but a U.S. official said it was not clear there would be any compensation.

“President Alvaro Colom considers these experiments crimes against humanity and Guatemala reserves the right to denounce them in an international court,” said a government statement, which announced a commission to investigate the matter.

Reverby previously performed research on the Tuskegee experiment, where U.S. authorities measured the progress of syphilis in African-American men without letting them know they had the disease or adequately treating it.

The experiment took place between 1932 and 1972, and President Bill Clinton eventually apologized for it.

Image Caption: President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala to express his deep regret regarding the study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service in the 1940s on sexually transmitted disease inoculation and to extend an apology to all those affected, Oct. 1, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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