US apologises for “reprehensible” research in Guatemala
Syphilis experiments highlight research ethics
- By: Toby Reynolds
The uncovering of a 1940s US funded research programme that deliberately infected vulnerable Guatemalans with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases has turned the spotlight on research ethics and public confidence in the conduct of clinical trials.
From 1946 to 1948, prisoners in Guatemala’s national penitentiary were encouraged to have sex with prostitutes who had been deliberately infected with syphilis or gonorrhoea, a US government study of archived papers shows.1 Additional research subjects, including patients in the national mental health hospital, had the causative bacteria for syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chancroid applied to skin or mucous membranes. The aim was to discover how well treatments for the diseases worked.
For the syphilis experiments alone, records show that at least 497 people were inoculated with syphilis, 87% of whom developed signs of infection. Of these, around three quarters were prescribed adequate penicillin treatment, and only 26% were documented to have finished this