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Shocking US experiments on Guatemalans revealed

The experiments took place in the 1940s and included people being injected with syphilis and other illnesses, by what were described as “unethical” researchers.

A vulture flies behind a tomb at Guatemala City's main cemetery
A vulture flies behind a tomb at Guatemala City's main cemetery
Image: Rodrigo Abd/AP/Press Association Images

NEW DETAILS OF US medical experiments carried out on people in Guatemala in the 1940s have been revealed.

Members of a presidential panel that released the information said it shows that the researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the context of a different era.

The experiments were carried out from 1946 – 48 when the US Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with a number of Guatemalan government agencies to do medical research paid for by the US government.

These experiments involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases, in an apparent attempt to see if penicillin – then a relatively new discovery – could prevent infections in them.

It is believed 1,300 people, including soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis, were infected, and only about 700 of them received treatment of some sort.

Also, 83 people died, although it’s not clear if the deaths were directly due to the experiments.

The research came up with no useful medical information, according to some experts, and was hidden for decades until it came to light last year.

It was uncovered after a Wellesley College medical historian discovered records among the papers of Dr John Cutler, who led the experiments.

President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, to apologise.

A report by Obama’s bioethics commission to review the Guatemala experiments is due next month.

Commission members discussed some of the findings at a meeting Monday in Washington, which revealed that some of the experiments were more shocking than was previously known.

For example, seven women with epilepsy, who were housed at Guatemala’s Asilo de Alienados (Home for the Insane), were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, a risky procedure.

The researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy but the women each got bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of the unsterile injections. They were treated for the meningitis.

A female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness was infected with gonorrhea in her eyes and elsewhere by researchers who wanted to see what the impact of an additional infection would be.

Six months later she died. Dr Amy Gutmann, head of the commission, described the case as “chillingly egregious.”

During that time, other researchers were also using people as human guinea pigs but panel members concluded that the Guatemala research was bad even by the standards of the time.

The Guatemalan participants — or many of them — received no explanations and did not give informed consent, the commission said.

The commission is working on a second report examining federally funded international studies to make sure current research is being done ethically.

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government has vowed to do its own investigation into the Cutler study.

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