The records of the US syphilis experiments in Guatemala: read them yourself!

Now open to public access: the documents at the heart of last October’s scandal over unethical experiments by US researchers in Guatemala.  In 1946-48, the US team, seeking an opportunity to study the effectiveness of penicillin against syphilis and gonorrhoea, conducted experiments involving the deliberate exposure to those diseases of 700 Guatemalan soldiers, mental health patients and prison inmates.

The scandal following last October’s discovery of papers relating to this experiment by a medical historian at Pittsburgh University occasioned a personal telephone call by President Obama to Guatemala’s president in order to apologize.  Representatives of Guatemala claimed their country had had no knowledge of the experiment prior to the call.  The documents now opened to public access belonged to the public health researcher Dr John C. Cutler, also known for his participation in the Tuskegee study, who died in 2003. Their publication (29.03.11) follows by only a couple of weeks the filing of a lawsuit (15.03.11) against the US government on behalf of victims and their heirs, seeking compensation for resulting health problems.

So what do these papers reveal?

For a start, a high degree of involvement on the part of the Guatemalans – though the US researchers were in control of the research.  The overall impression is of a genuine collaboration, with both Guatemalans and the American team expecting to derive benefit from participation in the research. The primary local collaborator was Dr. Juan Funes, chief of the VD control division of the Guatemalan Sanidad Publica.  Institutional partners included the Guatemalan Ministry of Health, the National Army of the Revolution, the National Mental Health Hospital, and the Ministry of Justice.  Contemporary Guatemalan attitudes to the US researchers appear to have been characterized by gratitude and appreciation.

How times have changed!

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