In the 1940s, US doctors deliberately infected thousands of Guatemalans with venereal diseases.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, US health officials were consumed by the battle against STDs, much as subsequent generations of researchers have fought cancer and HIV. In 1943, Joseph Moore, then chairman of the US National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Venereal Diseases, estimated that the military would face 350,000 new infections of gonorrhoea annually, “the equivalent of putting out of action for a full year the entire strength of two full armored divisions or of ten aircraft carriers”. The government launched vigorous campaigns of research, treatment and advertising to combat the problem.
To test treatments and prophylaxis, the Public Health Service had argued in late 1942 that it was crucial to give the disease to people under controlled conditions. Officials debated the legality and ethics of this, and even solicited the input of the US attorney general. They decided to do the work at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, using volunteer inmates.
In 1945, a Guatemalan health official who was working for a year at the VDRL offered to host studies in his country. As director of the Guatemalan Venereal Disease Control Department, Juan Funes was uniquely positioned to help. Prostitution was legal in his country at the time, and sex workers were required to visit a clinic twice a week for examinations and treatment. Funes oversaw one of the main clinics, so he could recommend infected prostitutes for experiments. Cutler and other scientists at the VDRL were quickly sold on the idea: they proposed a programme, which was approved with a budget of US$110,450.
According to a Guatemalan report3, the US plan was a clear violation of contemporary Guatemalan law, which made it illegal to knowingly spread venereal diseases. But the country was experiencing political upheaval in the mid-1940s and the bureaucracy did not object to the US plan.
The Guatemala experiments are already considered one of the darker episodes of medical research in US history, but panel members say the new information indicates that researchers were unusually unethical, even when placed into the historical context of a different era.
“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 1946-48, the US Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies on medical research paid for by the US government that involved deliberately exposing people to sexually transmitted diseases.
The researchers apparently were trying to see if penicillin, then relatively new, could prevent infections in the 1,300 people exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. Those infected included soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis.
President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, to apologise.