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05 October 2010

Guatemala sex diseases investigated

President Alvaro Colom formed a committee to investigate how US scientists could have deliberately infected hundreds of people here with sexually transmitted diseases.

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President Alvaro Colom formed a committee to investigate how US scientists could have deliberately infected hundreds of people here with sexually transmitted diseases from 1946-1948.

"The committee's goal is to get to the bottom of the facts. It will try to determine how it was possible for this to happen; who the victims were, as well as the consequences and presumed guilty parties," presidential spokesman Ronaldo Robles said.

Colom himself will be on the panel, as well as Vice President Rafael Espada, Health Minister Ludwig Ovalle, Interior Minister Carlos Menocal, Defense Minister Abraham Valenzuela, members of the medical association and Robles.

Carlos Mejia, the chief of the medical association, did not downplay the outrage Guatemalans have been voicing about the study.

Sensitive research

"This was sensitive research, with experiments similar to the ones done by the Nazis, who handpicked disadvantaged subjects" for research, he said.

"We need to know how high up knowledge of the study reached in the executive and legislative branches" at the time, Mejia stressed.

In a phone conversation with Colom, US President Barack Obama expressed his deep regret for the experiment conducted by US public health researchers in Guatemala between 1946 and 1948, and apologised "to all those affected."

The study, which was never published, came to light this year after Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the 1940s experiment led by controversial US public health doctor John Cutler.

Enrolling people for the study

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled people in Guatemala, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin, relatively new in the 1940s, could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Cutler, was also involved in a highly controversial study known as the Tuskegee Experiment in which hundreds of African American men with late-stage syphilis were observed but given no treatment for 40 years, between 1932 and 1972.

Initially, the researchers infected female Guatemalan commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, and then allowed them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.

A total of some 1,500 people took part in the study. At least one patient died during the experiments, although it is not clear whether the death was from the tests or from an underlying medical problem.

(Sapa, October 2010)

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