WASHINGTON - The U.S. government acknowledged on Friday that U.S. scientists had infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis and gonorrhea in experiments from 1946 to 1948 in "appalling violations" of medical ethics.
U.S. scientists infected prostitutes with syphilis or gonorrhea and sent them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates, later testing them for possible cures, U.S. officials said.
When few became infected, scientists turned to patients at a mental health hospital, exposing them to infection by rubbing it on their genitals.
None of the subjects was informed about the study or offered consent, U.S. officials said.
At least one patient is known to have died.
"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," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
"We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices," they said.
Their statement said current regulations prohibit such "appalling violations" of ethics regarding human medical research and added that the two departments would launch "a thorough investigation" of the 1946-1948 study in Guatemala.
Mrs. Clinton called President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala Thursday night "to express her personal outrage, deep regret," Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said.
Mr. Colom voiced anger.
"These should be considered crimes against humanity and Guatemala reserves the right to petition the relevant international court at an opportune time," he said yesterday.
Yesterday's acknowledgment shed new light on U.S. medical experiments that included the infamous Tuskegee study in which scientists observed, but didn't treat, hundreds of African-American men with late-stage syphilis in Macon County, Alabama, starting in 1932 until it was exposed by the media in 1972.
A Wellesley College professor of history and women's studies, Susan Reverby, discovered evidence of the secret U.S. tests in Guatemala while examining papers on the Tuskegee study.
The papers are at the University of Pittsburgh archive.
The papers showed that a U.S. Public Health Service team led by physician John C. Cutler infected men and women in the Guatemalan National Penitentiary, an army barracks, and a mental health hospital.
Dr. Cutler had little difficulty winning Guatemalan support for the study through pledges of medicine, such as penicillin and an anti-convulsant drug for epileptics. U.S. tax dollars paid for the program.
Dr. Cutler later took up a post at the University of Pittsburgh.
The purpose of the study was to determine how to prevent infection from syphilis, using different doses of penicillin, as well as to find effective treatments, Ms. Reverby wrote.
The HHS fact sheet said "some of the persons infected with syphilis were prescribed only partial treatment or not treated at all."