THE US issued an unusual apology yesterday to Guatemala for conducting experiments in the 1940s in which doctors infected soldiers, prisoners and mentally ill patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
President Barack Obama apologised in a telephone call to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom. ''This is tragic and the United States by all means apologises to all those who were impacted by this,'' White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
The experiments, conducted by a doctor who was later involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in Alabama, involved 696 men and women who were drafted into studies aimed at determining the effectiveness of penicillin.
Advertisement: Story continues below''The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946 to 1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical,'' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a joint statement.
''Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health.''
Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, discovered the experiment while investigating the Tuskegee experiment. In the experiment, perhaps the most notorious medical experiment in US history, hundreds of African-American men with syphilis were left untreated in order to study the disease for 40 years.
Professor Reverby was reading papers in archives from John Cutler, a doctor with the federal government's Public Health Service who would later be involved in the Tuskegee experiment. The documents detailed the Guatemalan studies.
''I almost fell out of my chair when I started reading this,'' Professor Reverby said. ''Can you imagine? I couldn't believe it.''
The study was sponsored by the Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau (now the World Health Organisation's Pan American Health Organisation) and the Guatemalan government.
It came when doctors were trying to assess whether giving men penicillin right after sex would prevent infections.
Dr Cutler and colleagues decided to study men in Guatemalan prisons because prisoners in that country were allowed to have sexual visits. ''The doctors used prostitutes with the disease to pass it to the prisoners,'' Professor Reverby wrote in a synopsis of the experiments.
Because so few men were getting infected, the researchers then attempted ''direct inoculations made from syphilis bacteria poured into the men's penises and on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded, or in a few cases through spinal punctures'', Professor Reverby wrote.
They conducted similar experiments involving gonorrhoea, and on soldiers and on men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital.
Thomas Parran, then US surgeon general, clearly knew the experiment was unethical, Professor Reverby said.
''You know, we couldn't do such an experiment in this country,'' he said, according to her synopsis.