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Posted by on Aug 31, 2011 in Ethics, Infectious diseases, Medical history

Panel Reveals Horrific Details of US-Funded Guatemalan VD Experiments

Panel Reveals Horrific Details of US-Funded Guatemalan VD Experiments

A Presidential commission, charged with investigating the US-funded VD experiments on Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients in the mid-1940s, revealed some of its shocking findings this week to the press (for background on this story, start here). The experiments, performed without subjects’ consent, were discovered and reported by a Wellesley medical historian, Susan Reverby, last fall, and President Obama shortly thereafter apologized to the Guatemalan government for the unethical studies and ordered a commission to investigate them.

The commission’s official report will reportedly be available in early September (tomorrow?), but a few highly disturbing details of the investigation were made available to the AP this week. Among them:

  • 1300 Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners, prostitutes, or mental patients were intentionally exposed to the microbes that cause syphilis or gonorrhea
  • Only about 700 (53%) of the exposed individuals received some sort of treatment (presumably penicillin*)
  • 83 people in the study died, although it’s not clear if death was due to intentional infection
  • The research provided “no useful medical information”
  • 7 women with epilepsy, residents of Guatemala’s Asilo de Alienados (Asylum for the Insane), were injected with Treponema pallidum at the base of the skull, as a hopeful cure; all developed bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of unsterile technique
  • A female patient with syphilis and an unknown terminal illness received an inoculation of gonococci in the eyes “and elsewhere”; she died 6 months later

John_C_Culter_MD_2.jpgNotorious US physician John C. Cutler, MD (right), who oversaw the PHS’s Tuskegee syphilis experiment, led the American-funded
human experimentation in Guatemala.

Guatemalan authorities are evidently conducting their own fact-finding investigation of the matter, but official reports have been delayed on more than one occasion. According to the AP, the Guatemalan report should be completed by November. (It should be remembered that Guatemalan authorities were complicit in the PHS experiments, according to Reverby.)

* The described rationale for the program was to determine the preventive benefit of penicillin.

Portrait of PHS physician John C. Cutler, MD, August 25, 1942, from the National Library of Medicine.

bmartin (1082 Posts)

A native East Tennessean, Barbara Martin is a formerly practicing, board-certified neurologist who received her BS (psychology, summa cum laude) and MD from Duke University before completing her postgraduate training (internship, residency, fellowship) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has worked in academia, private practice, medical publishing, drug market research, and continuing medical education (CME). For the last 3 years, she has worked in a freelance capacity as a medical writer, analyst, and consultant. Follow Dr. Barbara Martin on and Twitter.