US medical experiments in Guatemala (map) in the 1940’s were kept a secret until last year, when Prof Susan Reverby at Wellesley College unearthed hidden records. Now health authorities told the BBC that the extent of those experiments could be greater than previously thought.
According to the president of the Medical Association of Guatemala, 2,500 people could have been infected with syphilis or gonorrhoea in a programme to study penicillin.
The commission’s final report is due in October, but on Monday a US report was released saying that 1,300 Guatemalans were infected without their knowledge.
It also said that US scientists knew they were violating ethical rules.
Evidence show that at the time of the tests US and Guatemalan authorities collaborated, Carlos Mejia, a member of the commission established by the Guatemalan government to investigate the experiments, told the BBC.
He said that at least nine Guatemalan doctors were involved in these experiments, adding that eight of them have already died and authorities don’t know where is the ninth, who would be over 90 years old now.
Many of the US government scientists who carried out the Guatemalan experiments had earlier participated to a study in the US, where they had sought consent from participants.
Several ways to infect patients
Between 1946 and 1948 about 5,500 Guatemalans were involved in all the research, according to the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The aim of these experiments was to apply the results on US troops around the world.
US president Barack Obama set up the commission last year, when the existence of these experiments first came to light. Mr Obama also apologised to Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom for the “reprehensible” experiments.
Some 1,300 prisoners, psychiatric patients and sex workers were purposely infected with syphilis (photo, from france24.com), gonorrhoea or chancroid, another sexually transmitted disease. Only about 700 of them received some kind of treatment.
There were several ways to infect the patients, including injecting concentrations of bacteria into the eyes, the central nervous system and male genitals.
A method very similar to those used by the scientists in Nazi Germany according to Mr Mejia.
“It took place in the context in which they [the United States] were judging the German doctors who had been experimenting with typhus and malaria on prisoners of war. The Nazis used Poles, Russians and Jews, while the Americans made almost the same use of Guatemalans,” he says.
Documents studied by the commission show that at least 83 of the 5,500 subjects had died by the end of 1953, but it was not possible to determine whether any of them died directly or indirectly because of the infections.
In March a group of hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, psychiatric patients and orphans who were deliberately infected announced they were suing the US government for compensation.