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U.S. Admits Infecting Prisoners, Mentally Ill Patients in Guatemala in 1940s

The United States’ relationship with the Central American nation of Guatemala probably hit a new low in October 2010 with the revelation that as part of U.S. medical studies conducted over sixty years ago in Guatemala, prisoners, soldiers and mentally ill patients were infected with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or consent.

The experiments were condemned by Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, who accused the U.S. of “crimes against humanity.” President Barack Obama called President Colom to apologize, and agreed that the acts were contrary to American values. According to the BBC, “Syphilis can cause heart problems, blindness, mental illness, and even death, and although the patients were treated with penicillin, it is not known how many recovered.”

The experimentation on Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers and mentally ill patients was discovered by Professor Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College, who said the medical studies took place between 1946 and 1948. They were conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the Pan American Health Organization). While Guatemalan government officials had consented to the experiments, they did not receive all of the relevant details related to the studies.

“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,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a joint statement. They called the experiments “clearly unethical” and “abhorrent.”

Professor Reverby found that U.S. government medical personnel had infected almost 700 people with the two sexually transmitted diseases. There is no evidence that the people who were infected were aware they were the subject of medical experiments. According to news reports, doctors used prostitutes and inoculations to infect the test subjects in an attempt to determine whether penicillin could prevent syphilis and gonorrhea in addition to curing those diseases.

The Guatemala experiments post-dated a 1944 medical study in which prisoner “volunteers” at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana were injected with lab-grown gonorrhea.

“It’s ironic – no, it’s worse than that, it’s appalling – that, at the same time as the United States was prosecuting Nazi doctors for crimes against humanity, the U.S. government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk,” observed Dr. Mark Siegler, director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.

The Guatemala studies were similar to the Tuskegee experiment, in which U.S. Public Health Service officials tracked the progress of syphilis in hundreds of African-American men in Alabama from 1932 to 1972, without telling them they had the disease or adequately treating it. Former President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee experiment in 1997. One of the doctors involved in Tuskegee, Dr. John C. Cutler, also participated in the Guatemala studies.

Although a spokesman for President Colom said that Guatemala “reserves the right to denounce [the experiments] in an international court,” the U.S. only recognizes the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice when it wants to, following a 1984 ruling by the Court against the U.S.

The results of an investigation by Guatemalan authorities, released in May 2011, found that approximately 1,300 people may have been involved in the experiments. A few were identified as still being alive. Given the massive scale of U.S. crimes in Guatemala, ranging from CIA orchestrated coups to counter insurgency campaigns that left more than 200,000 Guatemalans slaughtered by a succession of U.S.-backed military dictatorships, infecting 1,300 Guatemalans with infectious diseases is probably in the misdemeanor range of international war crimes.

As previously reported in PLN, the Institute of Medicine is currently considering whether to expand the use of prisoners in medical experiments in the U.S. [See: PLN, March 2008, p.1].

Sources:, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times

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