In order to study penicillin, U.S. Public Health officials purposefully infected residents of Guatemala with STDs. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A recently released paper by a Wellesley College professor revealed that in the 1940s, the U.S. Government sponsored research on STDs in Guatemala. These studies infected subjects with syphilis and gonorrhea without their knowledge. The study subjects and their families are now suing the U.S. government for compensation.

Guatemalan STD studies

In the 1940s, the United States government was studying the effects of the new drug penicillin. In order to understand the drug, the government performed some tests now widely called “reprehensible research … under the guise of public health.” Between 1946 and 1948, with the consent of the Guatemalan government, the United States government injected psychiatric patients, orphans and prisoners with syphilis or gonorrhea without their knowledge. Prostitutes were also infected with the diseases and encouraged to sleep with prisoners. Infected subjects were often encouraged to have unprotected intercourse with non-infected individuals in an attempt to pass along the diseases. Public health researchers often bribed caretakers of the subjects to keep the experiments secret. During these experiments, informed consent was not yet required in many medical studies.

Reaction of the United States government

When the reality of the Guatemalan STD studies came to light, officials within the government were quick to denounce the studies. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately issued an official apology, calling the research practices abhorrent. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom also issued an apology, stating that these tests were a “crime against humanity.”

Research subjects seeking compensation

Both governments have issued official apologies, but survivors of the experiments and their decedents are seeking monetary compensation. The class-action lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount in damages. The U.S. Government paid $9 million in the 1970s to compensate victims of the Tuskegee experiments, in which syphilis was purposefully left untreated in impoverished black men. Adjusted for inflation, that amount would be $35.5 million today. The head of the class-action lawsuit has approached the U.S. government, seeking an out-of-court settlement. The government has not yet publicly responded to this request.


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