Guatemala: US apologizes for syphilis experiment

US president Barack Obama personally apologized by phone to Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom on Oct. 1 shortly after the US revealed that the US Public Health Service had purposely infected Guatemalan soldiers, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis and gonorrhea in a 1946-48 experiment to test the effectiveness of penicillin in fighting sexually transmitted diseases. The program exposed some 1,500 Guatemalans to the diseases, and 696 were reportedly infected. It is not clear how many of them received medical treatment.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (PASB), the predecessor of the current Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), financed the experiment, which was carried out under the government of Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, although apparently there was some deception of Guatemalan officials. The program was directed by Dr. John Cutler of the US Public Health Service; Cutler was later involved in the notorious 1932-1972 study in Tuskegee, Alabama, in which African-American men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated. The Guatemalan experiment only came to light now because of independent research by Wellesley College professor Susan M. Reverby.

At an Oct. 1 press conference President Colom called the experiment a “crime against humanity” and said his government “reserves the right to file a complaint.” Nery Rodenas Paredes, head of the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s human rights office, said that “it’s not enough to ask for pardon,” the US needs to pay compensation to the victims’ families.

Dr. Mark Siegler, director of the Maclean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago’s medical school, told the New York Times: “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 US government was supporting research that placed human subjects at enormous risk.” (La Jornada, Mexico, Oct. 2, from correspondent, from AFP, Notimex; NYT, Oct. 2)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 3.

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