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‘Sorry Isn’t Enough’ after U.S. STD Study on Guatemalans Comes to Light

October 4, 2010

Guatemalans expressed alarm this weekend following the revelation that over 60 years ago a U.S. public health official led a study during which hundreds in that Central American country were deliberately infected with venereal diseases.

“The Guatemalan government strongly condemns such actions and deeply deplores that these experiments were carried out on innocent people,” said the Foreign Ministry in a statement. “At the same time, we request from the U.S. authorities an exhaustive investigation into the conditions in which the study was conducted and the consequences it produced.”

Nery Rodenas, head of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Human Rights Office, said the United States “used Guatemalans as laboratory rats,” according to press reports out of Guatemala City.

Barack Obama

President Barack Obama speaks with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom Friday. Pete Souza/White House

The study was brought to light by a professor at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who uncovered documents detailing a 1940s U.S.-funded study of sexually transmitted diseases in which Guatemalan prisoners and mentally ill patients were intentionally infected with and then treated for syphilis. The study, led by Dr. John Culter, was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health to the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau, now the Pan American Health Organization. Dr. Cutler was researching the use of penicillin to treat venereal diseases.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday made a formal apology to the Guatemalan people. “The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago,” she said in a statement. “Today, the regulations that govern U.S.-funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations.”

“Sorry isn’t enough; we need compensation,” Zury Ríos, a Guatemalan lawmaker, told wire service AFP, adding that the country could use assistance now with a better reproductive health program.

It is not clear whether any of the Guatemalans who participated in the experiment – either willingly or as unknowing victims – are alive today.

The Tico Times contacted Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby, who found the documents buried in the archives of the University of Pittsburgh. She said the papers include a list of Guatemalan patient records with names. However, she added, the list of names, especially regarding the patients taken from an asylum, “were a bit uncertain.”

Reverby said the U.S. government has moved the papers from the University of Pittsburgh to the U.S. National Archives, where the Institute of Medicine might investigate the matter further.

Tim Rogers contributed to this report.

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