US apologizes for infecting Guatemalans with STDs in the 1940s

By the CNN Wire Staff STORY HIGHLIGHTS NEW: Guatemala accepts the apology, the presidential spokesman said Guatemalan leaders have been told...

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • NEW: Guatemala accepts the apology, the presidential spokesman said
  • Guatemalan leaders have been told and are concerned, a U.S. official
  • The United States is launching an investigation, officials said
  • The research was "reprehensible," the U.S. statement said

Washington (CNN) -- The United States apologized Friday for a 1946-1948 research study that purposely infected people in Guatemala with sexually transmitted diseases.

A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the action "reprehensible."

"We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices," the joint statement said. "The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala."

Clinton called Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on Thursday night to inform him, said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela.

"They were obviously concerned about this information. They were saddened by it," Valenzuela said in a telephone news conference Friday.

Guatemalan officials took into account that the experiments occurred more than 60 years ago, Valenzuela said.

"We reject these types of actions, obviously," said Guatemala presidential spokesman Ronaldo Robles. "We know that this took place some time ago, but this is unacceptable and we recognize the apology from Secretary Clinton."

The study came to light recently when Wellesley College researcher Susan Reverby found the archived but unpublished notes from the project.

The scientific investigation, called the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948, aimed to gauge the effectiveness of penicillin to treat syphilis, gonorrhea and chancres. Penicillin was a relatively new drug at the time.

The tests were carried out on female commercial sex workers, prisoners in the national penitentiary, patients in the national mental hospital and soldiers. According to the study, more than 1,600 people were infected: 696 with syphilis, 772 with gonorrhea and 142 with chancres.

A similar study was conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, on nearly 400 poor African-American men with syphilis whose disease was allowed to progress without treatment. The subjects were not told they were ill with the disease.

The Guatemala study was done under the direction of U.S. Public Health Service physician John C. Cutler, who later ran the Tuskegee experiment, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes for Health.

Collins, who called the Guatemala study "a dark chapter in the history of medicine," spoke at the same teleconference in which Valenzuela made his remarks.

U.S. officials stressed Friday that ethical safeguards would prevent such abuses from occurring today.

"The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago," the U.S. statement said. "Today, the regulations that govern U.S.-funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations."

Clinton and Sebelius said the United States is launching an investigation and also convening a group of international experts to review and report on the most effective methods to make sure all human medical research worldwide meets rigorous ethical standards.

"As we move forward to better understand this appalling event, we reaffirm the importance of our relationship with Guatemala, and our respect for the Guatemalan people, as well as our commitment to the highest standards of ethics in medical research," the U.S. statement said.

CNN's Arthur Brice and Nick Valencia contributed to this report.

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