US infected mentally ill in Guatemala with syphilis, gonorrhea

US apologized for funding a 1940s study in which Guatemalans were deliberately infected with syphilis.

Washington: The United States apologized on Friday for funding a 1940s study in which hundreds of Guatemalans were deliberately infected with syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent.

The study conducted between 1946 and 1948 in Guatemala was "clearly unethical" and "reprehensible," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a statement.

The researchers who conducted the study enrolled vulnerable populations including mental patients, and did not inform them of the intent of the study or what would happen to them. The participants were encouraged to pass on sexually transmitted diseases, and some who contracted syphilis were not treated.

A total of some 1,500 people took part in the study. At least one patient died during the experiments, although it is not clear whether the death was from the experiments or from an underlying medical problem.

"Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health," Clinton and Sebelius said.

"We deeply regret that it happened and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices," they said, announcing the launch of a thorough investigation into the specifics of the study.

"The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical."

The aim of the Guatemala study, which was funded by a grant from the US National Institutes of Health to the then Pan American Sanitary Bureau, which became the Pan American Health Organization, was to look for new ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

The first experiments in Guatemala involved infecting female commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, and then allowing them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

"When few of these men became infected, the research approach changed to direct inoculation of soldiers, prisoners and mental hospital patients," background documents on the study show.

Bureau Report