CDC, NIH Condemn ‘Deeply Saddening’ Guatemala Study

The recent discovery that U.S. researchers intentionally infected Guatemalans with STDs in the 1940s spurred angry responses and an apology from President Obama to Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom.

Now the directors of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health are condemning the study as “regrettable and deeply saddening,” while outlining the glaring ethical violations that occurred. The research involved infecting sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis and bringing them into contact with study subjects, as well as directly injecting subjects with the diseases.

“The 1946-1948 inoculation study should never have happened, and nothing like it should ever happen again,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden and NIH Director Francis Collins wrote in an op-ed in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The authors noted, however, that “such studies were not rare at the time.”

According to their commentary, the clear ethical violations of the case include choosing subjects from vulnerable populations, including inmates and mentally disabled individuals, intentionally infecting subjects with pathogens that could cause serious illness and being deceptive while conducting the experiments.

The researchers themselves questioned the study in correspondence uncovered by Wellesley professor Susan Reverby, who discovered the project while conducting other historical research.

“I am a bit, in fact more than a bit, leery of the experiment with the insane people,” wrote R.C. Arnold, the supervisor of the main investigator, U.S. Public Health Service medical officer John Cutler. “They can not give consent, do not know what is going on, and if some goody organization got wind of the work, they would raise a lot of smoke.”

When Reverby appeared on the NewsHour earlier this month, she pointed to such correspondence as particularly troubling.

“What I found in the correspondence, which was, frankly, one of the more shocking things, was the language back and forth where it became really clear that they knew that this was improper,” she said.

Frieden and Collins wrote that such unethical studies could never be carried out today by the U.S. government, and that safeguards put in place over the last 60 years ensure participants’ consent and protection.

The U.S. government has asked the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to create an independent fact-finding committee on the study, but an Oct. 7 editorial in the New York Times suggests the government go a step further and “pay reparations to any survivors that can be found and compensate Guatemala by paying for ethical health projects there.”