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A federal commission began presenting its findings today regarding a government-backed experiment that infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis in the 1940s.The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues is holding public hearings Monday and Tuesday to unveil the full details of their investigation into the controversial program, which was intended to evaluate the effectiveness of penicillin in treating sexually transmitted diseases. In those studies, researchers backed by the U.S. Public Health Service used infected prostitutes and direct injections to transmit the disease to nearly 700 Guatemalans from 1946 to 1948.
For decades, the experiments remained secret until they were uncovered last October by a college professor who was conducting research on the Tuskegee syphilis study, a similarly controversial experiment carried out from 1932 to 1972 in which scientists infected poor black farmers in Alabama with the disease. The U.S. immediately apologized for the experiment, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issuing a joint statement condemning it.
“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,” Clinton and Sebelius wrote. “We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologise to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
Guatemala blasted the experiment as a crime against humanity, and the country is currently conducting its own investigation into the program. Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada, who is leading his country’s study, was scheduled to address the commission today, though he was forced to cancel that appearance due to Hurricane Irene.
President Obama formed the commission last year to further elucidate the scope and intent of the program, and to subsequently review the current ethical standards for medical experiments. A second report detailing contemporary ethical practices is to be released in December.