The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Questions and answers on Guatemala research

During today’s meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, several key questions were answered about the investigation into the U.S. Public Health Service’s studies in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948 that exposed and infected vulnerable populations to sexually transmitted diseases.

Here are some of the questions:

Why were they studying sexually transmitted diseases?

At the time, sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhea, were a major health threat. World War II had just ended, with 11 million Americans serving in the war. U.S. public health officers wanted to learn more about ways of treating these diseases.

Why were vulnerable populations targeted?

The researchers wanted to find participants who would not object to the studies, and sought out people in mental institutions, prisoners, commercial sex workers, and members of the Guatemala army.

The researchers conducted studies on sexually transmitted diseases among prisoners in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1943. In those studies, the researchers fully informed patients of what would be happening and gave them informed consent forms to sign. In Guatemala, they told patients little to nothing and used no consent forms.

Was this good science?

No. Record keeping was poor. Protocols were botched.

“There was no value,” said Commission member Dr. Nelson L. Michael Director, Division of Retrovirology, at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and Director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program. “What stings the most in terms of bad science is that it never passed peer review and was never published.”

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