U.S. pledges $1.8 million in response to unethical Guatemalan medical studies

January 10, 2012

Responding to U.S. experiments that infected Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea in the 1940s, the Obama administration announced Tuesday that it will spend $1 million to study new rules for protecting medical research volunteers. An additional $775,000 will go to fighting sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala.

The funding arrives a month after a presidential commission investigating the experiments recommended that the United States develop a system to compensate anyone harmed in medical research. It also follows apologies made in 2010 to the Guatemalan victims by President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

“Although these events occurred more than six decades ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health and we deeply regret that it happened,” a spokesperson for HHS, which provided the funds, said Tuesday.

To test penicillin as a treatment, U.S. and Guatemalan doctors infected prostitutes and prisoners from 1946 to 1948 without their knowledge or consent. The experiments remained hidden until a Wellesley College professor unearthed study documents in 2009.

The National Institutes of Health will lead the work on revising rules to protect medical research volunteers. The rest of the funding will bolster existing efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fight sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala. Since 2009, the CDC has been underwriting disease testing at community clinics while training Guatemalan health officials, said Kathryn Harben, a CDC spokeswoman.

In December, the issue reached Obama’s science adviser, John P. Holdren. Holdren and the staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy had detailed discussions about proposals made by the president’s bioethics commission to improve protections for research volunteers, OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss said.

The announcement Tuesday came one day after the Obama administration argued in a court filing that the United States is immune to lawsuits from victims of the experiments.Tuesday, bioethicists questioned whether the United States would take additional action to redress the situation. “We’re missing the piece of what will be provided as a direct remedy” to study survivors, said Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

“As a result of these unethical studies, a terrible wrong has occurred. The United States is committed to taking appropriate steps to address that wrong,” read a court filing, without elaboration, made by the Justice Department Monday, the Associated Press reported.

Faden said there was precedent for the U.S. government to pay victims of unethical experiments. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration compensated victims of radiation experiments conducted by the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950s. Victims of the infamous Tuskegee studies — in which black men with sexually transmitted diseases were left untreated — also eventually received compensation.

Lawyers for Guatemalans who filed a class-action lawsuit against the United States said the immunity assertion contradicts the apologies made by Obama and his advisers.

The Associated Press reported that Guatemalan officials said last month that they have found 2,082 people were involved in the experiments, while U.S. officials put the figure at 1,308.

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