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Tuskegee and Guatemala syphilis experiment

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Between 1932 and 1972 the US government experimented on black men, infecting them and not treating them for syphilis to see how they would die.

Guatemala syphilis experiment

Tuskegee syphilis experiment

Apology to Black Americans from Bill Clinton

In 1974 Congress passed the National Research Act and created a commission to study and write regulations governing studies involving human participants. On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton formally apologized and held a ceremony for the Tuskegee study participants: “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry … To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.” Five of the eight remaining study survivors attended the White House ceremony.

bpp-tuskegeeThe Tuskegee Syphilis Study significantly damaged the trust of the black community toward public health efforts in the United States. The study may also have contributed to the reluctance of many poor black people to seek routine preventive care. However, recent studies such as the Tuskegee Legacy Project Questionnaire, have challenged the degree to which knowledge of the Tuskegee experiments have kept black Americans from participating in medical research. This study shows that even though black Americans are four times more likely to know about the Syphilis trials, they are still two to three times more willing to participate in biomedical studies. Other studies concluded that the Tuskegee Syphilis trial played a minor role in the decisions of black Americans to decline participation as research subjects. However, because there are few studies that have investigated the willingness of black Americans, there are no consistent conclusions surrounding the evaluation of willingness and participation pertaining to racial minorities. Some of the factors that continue to limit the credibility of these few studies is how awareness differs significantly across studies, the rates of awareness differ as a function of method of assessment, study participants who reported awareness of the Tuskegee Syphilis Trials are often misinformed, and awareness of the study is not reliably associated with unwillingness to participate in scientific research. Distrust of the government because of the study contributed to persistent rumors in the black community that the government was responsible for the HIV/AIDS crisis by introducing the virus to the black community.

Apology to Guatemala from Barack Obama

President Barack Obama called Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, to apologize. He also ordered his bioethics commission to review the Guatemala experiments. That work is nearly done. Though the final report is not due until next month, commission members discussed some of the findings at a meeting Monday in Washington.

They revealed that some of the experiments were more shocking than was previously known.

For example, seven women with epilepsy, who were housed at Guatemala’s Asilo de Alienados (Home for the Insane), were injected with syphilis below the back of the skull, a risky procedure. The researchers thought the new infection might somehow help cure epilepsy. The women each got bacterial meningitis, probably as a result of the unsterile injections, but were treated.

Perhaps the most disturbing details involved a female syphilis patient with an undisclosed terminal illness. The researchers, curious to see the impact of an additional infection, infected her with gonorrhea in her eyes and elsewhere. Six months later she died.


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