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83 died in Guatemala in 1940s U.S. experiments, panel says

August 29, 2011

WASHINGTON — At least 83 persons died in US medical experiments in Guatemala during the 1940s involving sexually transmitted diseases, a commission investigating the program concluded Tuesday.

Nearly 5,500 people were subjected to diagnostic testing, and more than 1,300 were exposed to venereal diseases by contact or inoculations, the commission found.

Within that group, “we believe that there were 83 deaths,” said commission member Stephen Hauser.

Among the 1,300 exposed to STDs, “under 700 received some form of treatment as best as could be documented,” Hauser added.

U.S. President Barack Obama created the commission last year, after news of the experiments came to light.

Obama personally apologized to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in October before ordering a thorough review of what happened, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as “clearly unethical.”

The Guatemalan study, which was never published, came to light in 2010 after Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the experiment led by controversial U.S. doctor John Cutler.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled 1,500 people in Guatemala, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Initially, the researchers infected female Guatemalan commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, and then allowed them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

Cutler also was involved in a highly controversial study known as the Tuskegee Experiment in which hundreds of African-American men with late-stage syphilis were observed but given no treatment between 1932 and 1972.

The Guatemalan president has called the 1946-48 experiments conducted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health “crimes against humanity” and ordered his own investigation.

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