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Guatemala syphilis experiments in 1940s called "chillingly egregious"


(CBS/AP) What would you call deliberately infecting people with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases? If you were among a group of American medical researchers working in Guatemala in the 1940s, you would have called it science.

Chilling new details have emerged from the 1940s Guatemala syphilis trials, where U.S. researchers infected soldiers, prisoners, prostitutes, and the mentally ill with potentially-lethal STDs.

The Guatemala experiments have been considered a black eye on U.S. medical research's history since last year, when its files were unearthed by a Wellesley College medical historian, Dr. Susan M. Reverby. But members of a presidential panel tasked with reviewing the experiment say new information indicates researchers were especially unethical - even when placed into the historical context.

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

From 1946 to 1948, Dr. John Cutler of the U.S. Public Health Service and colleagues worked with Guatemalan government agencies to conduct NIH-funded medical research that deliberately exposed 1,300 people to STDs like syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid, to see if the newly discovered penicillin could prevent infection.

The commission revealed Monday only 700 of those infected were treated. Eighty-three people died.

President Barack Obama apologized to Guatemala's president, Alvaro Colom, in addition to commissioning his bioethics panel to review the experiments. Though its final report isn't due until next month, members revealed some shocking new findings at a meeting Monday in Washington.

They reported seven women with epilepsy - who were housed at a Guatemalan insane asylum - were riskily injected with syphilis below the back of the skull because researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy. The women each got bacterial meningitis, likely as a result of unsterile injections.

Perhaps the most disturbing details - called "chillingly egregious" by the commission's head, Dr. Amy Gutmann - involved a female syphilis patient who had an unrelated terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhea in her eyes and elsewhere. She died six months later.

Cutler's work was not unique, experts have noted. During that period of lax regulation, other researchers also used people as human guinea pigs, infecting some with illnesses.

But panel members said Guatemala research was bad even by 1940s standards. They compared the work to another Cutler experiment in 1943 where his team infected prison inmates with gonorrhea in Terre Haute, Ind. The inmates were volunteers who at least consented to the study. Many of the Guatemalan participants did not receive such transparency, according to the panel.

The Guatemalan government has also vowed investigate the Cutler study. A spokesman for Vice President Rafael Espada said the report should be done by November.

The National Archives released files from the experiments.

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