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Updated: October 2, 2010 22:45 IST

U.S. apologises for human experiments

Narayan Lakshman
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In this photograph issued by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from his Oval Office with Gautemala President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala to express his deep regret on the Guatemala prison abuse on Friday, October 1, 2010. Photo Credit: White House
In this photograph issued by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama speaks from his Oval Office with Gautemala President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala to express his deep regret on the Guatemala prison abuse on Friday, October 1, 2010. Photo Credit: White House

The regret from White House came after a reseach by Professor Susan Reverby of Wellesley College revealed that vulnerable Guatemalans were clandestinely infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chancroid

The United States has apologised to Guatemala for a series of human experiments its researchers had conducted on Guatemalan prison and mental hospital inmates between 1946 and 1948.

U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior administration officials issued public statements of deep regret this week after archival research by Professor Susan Reverby of Wellesley College revealed that vulnerable Guatemalans were clandestinely infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chancroid.

The study, funded by a Department of State grant to the U.S. National Institute of Health, was purportedly aimed at testing the effectiveness of penicillin, which was relatively new at the time. The experiments, acknowledged by officials to be a gross violation of modern-day bioethics standards, were led by the late John Cutler, a U.S. Public Health Service medical officer.

Commenting on the episode the White House issued a statement on Friday saying that Mr. Obama had spoken with President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala to express his “deep regret” regarding the study, and to extend an apology to all those affected. He also reaffirmed the U.S.’ commitment to ensuring that all human medical studies conducted today would meet “exacting U.S. and international legal and ethical standards.”

In a joint statement Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius further said that they were “outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health.” They added that they deeply regretted that the “clearly unethical” experiments had happened and apologised to all the individuals affected by such “abhorrent research practices.”

Officials also remarked that the study had revived memories from another dark period in U.S. medical ethics – the Tuskegee, Alabama, experiments, in which nearly 400 African-American men were infected with syphilis without informed consent. In that case, treatment through Penicillin was not provided.

To further examine the question of adherence to bioethics standards the government also announced two investigations into the experiments. The first would be undertaken by the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, and the second by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

The depth of the concern was further underscored by Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, who noted that no fewer than 40 such studies, “where intentional infection was carried out with what we would now consider to be completely inadequate consent in the U.S.,” had been carried out by U.S. researchers.

Commenting on the involvement of minority and vulnerable communities in medical research Dr. Collins added that the Tuskegee study had involved the same Dr. Cutler, and did “great damage to the confidence and the trust that individuals, particularly from the African American community, had in medical research.”

He noted that Professor Reverby’s study had unearthed yet another example of medical research being conducted on vulnerable populations “in a way that is reprehensible.”

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