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U.S. Government Apologizes for 1940s STD Testing on Guatemalans

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Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Sebelius at an AIDS initiative event in Washington, Nov. 30, 2009. (Reuters)

The U.S. government apologized Friday for a secret program conducted more than 40 years ago in which prisoners and mental hospital patients in Guatemala were intentionally infected with gonorrhea, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The "unethical" and "reprehensible" program was discovered after a professor documented how U.S. scientists intentionally infected people in the Central American country with sexually transmitted diseases

Susan Reverby, a women's studies professor at Wellesley College, published a paper detailing the joint research program between the U.S. and Guatemalan governments. From 1946-1948, doctors enabled men in prison to be infected with syphilis or gonorrhea by allowing prostitutes carrying the disease to visit them. From there, they studied inoculation techniques. The tests, which also involved mental hospital patients, involved about 1,500 subjects, according to the study. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a joint statement Friday apologizing for the program. They said they would launch an investigation into the "specifics" of the study. 

"The sexually transmitted disease inoculation study conducted from 1946-1948 in Guatemala was clearly unethical," they said. "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. 

"We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices," they said. The conduct exhibited during the study does not represent the values of the United States, or our commitment to human dignity and great respect for the people of Guatemala."

U.S. officials will convene a committee of independent experts to conduct a "fact finding investigation" and will issue a report on the results, HHS said.

U.S. officials will also establish an international group of experts "to review and report on the most effective methods to ensure that all human medical research conducted around the globe today meets rigorous ethical standards and how training of researchers will ensure such abuses do not occur," HHS said.

The original intent of the study was to look for new ways to prevent STDs, HHS said in a fact sheet. Then the approach changed to direct inoculation of soldiers, prisoners and mental hospital patients.

"Although institutional officials were aware of the study, the study subjects were not informed of the purpose of the study and did not provide consent," HHS said. 

Most of the subjects who contracted an STD were treated, researchers said. But some who were infected with syphilis were given only partial treatment or not treated at all.

"At least one patient died during the experiments, although it is not clear whether the death was from the experiments or from an underlying medical problem," HHS said, adding that it is not clear from the records whether the prostitutes were treated.