(WASHINGTON) -- A commission set up last year by President Obama has revealed that 83 Guatemalans died in U.S. government research that infected hundreds of prisoners, prostitutes, and mental patients with the syphilis bacteria to study the drug penicillin -- a project that the group called "a shameful piece of medical history."
"The report is good and I applaud the Obama administration for giving it some sunshine," said Dr. Howard Markel, a pediatrician and medical historian from the University of Michigan. "Internationally, what we do as a human society is to make sure that these things never happen again."
But medical ethicists say that even if today's research is not as egregious as the Guatemala experiment, American companies are still testing drugs on poor, sometimes unknowing populations in the developing world.
Many, like Markel, note that experimenting with AIDS drugs in Africa and other pharmaceutical trials in Third World countries, "goes on every day."
"It's not good enough, in my opinion, to protect only people who live in the developed world -- but all human beings," he said.
The U.S. Public Health Service and the Pan American Sanitary Bureau worked with several Guatemalan government agencies from 1946 to 1948, exposing nearly 1,300 people to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea, or chancroid. They infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients -- more than 5,500 people in all were part of the medical experimentation.
The presidential panel said government scientists knew they were violating ethical rules.
Scientists wanted to see if penicillin, which was a relatively new drug, could prevent infections. The research was paid for with U.S. tax dollars and culled no useful medical information.
This week, the Obama commission revealed that only 700 of them received treatment and 83 died by 1953. The commission could not confirm whether the deaths were a direct cause of those infections.
In the 1940s, syphilis was a major health threat, causing blindness, insanity and even death. Many of the same researchers had carried out studies on prisoners in Terre Haute, Indiana, but unlike the Guatemalan research, they gave consent.
For years, the experiments were secret, until Susan M. Reverby, a medical historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, found the records of Dr. John Cutler, who led the experiments. A federal commission to learn more was set up last year.
President Obama has apologized to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom. A final report is due in December.
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