U.S. Admits to Infecting Guatemalans with STDs in 1940s Experiments

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By Ashley Portero | September 1, 2011 2:08 AM EST

A commission set up last year by President Obama has revealed that 83 Guatemalans died in U.S. government research facilities during a series of experiments in the 1940s that infected hundreds of prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients with sexually transmitted diseases in order to study the effectiveness of the drug penicillin.

As a result, the United States should create a system to compensate individuals who are harmed during the course of scientific research, recommended a panel of federal advisers on the Presidential commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

"Research with human subjects is a sacred trust.  Without public confidence, participation will decline and critical research will be stopped. It is imperative that we get this right," said Amy Gutmann, the chair of the Bioethics Commission.

The recommendation came on the second say of a two-day public hearing to discuss the results of the commissions' investigation into medical experiments that the U.S. government researchers conducted in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948. President Obama tasked the Bioethics Commission with overseeing a fact-finding probe into the specifics of the research conducted in Guatemala, a report of which is due in early September. In addition, the president asked the commission to investigate whether current rules for research participants protect them from harm or unethical treatment.

An analysis of over 125,000 original documents concluded that American scientists infected more than 5,500 Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, often without their permission or knowledge. Doctors reportedly infected prisoners, soldiers and mental patients by giving them prostitutes that were either carrying the diseases or infected by researchers, in order to see if the diseases could be treated with penicillin.

At least 83 of the subjects died during the process, while only 700 of those infected were actually given penicillin. Moreover, the trials did not result in any useful medical knowledge, according to medical records.

While investigators said it could not be determined if the 83 deaths were the direct result of the experiments, the panel concluded the tests were unethical and indefensible.

 "The researchers put their own medical advancement first and human decency a far second," said Anita Allen, a member of the Bioethics Commission.

According to a statement from the Commission, President Obama called Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize for that chapter of American medical history.

The research in Guatemala compared to similar experiments that occurred in Terre Haute, Ind.,  in 1943. Scientists exposed Terre Haute prison inmates to gonorrhea in order to research treatment options, although they were fully briefed and gave informed consent beforehand. During the course of the investigation, the Commission discovered that many of the same researchers involved in Terre Haute later conducted STD research in Guatemala.

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