Inquirer Editorial: Still feeling the impact of Tuskegee

Posted: September 06, 2011

No doubt the infamous Tuskegee Experiment crossed the minds of many Americans with last week's report of a similar study conducted by U.S. medical personnel on unsuspecting Guatemalans.

For 40 years, beginning in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, studied nearly 400 poor black men with syphilis in Macon County, Ala. They were never told they had syphilis, nor were they ever treated for it, even after penicillin became a standard cure for the disease in 1947.

Given that history, perhaps the report of a similar travesty in Guatemala should not be surprising. But the news is deeply disturbing. Americans like to think they are incapable of the type of depraved, Nazi thinking it takes to treat humans like lab rats.

From 1946-48, the U.S. Public Health Service similarly conducted research in Guatemala to test the effectiveness of penicillin in preventing sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis. Hundreds of soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners, and mental patients were exposed to STDs without knowing it. More than 80 died.

What happened in Guatemala was investigated by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, chaired by University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. She said a final report with the commission's conclusions would be submitted to President Obama this month.

"It is important that we accurately document this clearly unethical historical injustice," Gutmann said. "We do this to honor the victims. In addition, we must look to and learn from the past so that we can assure the public that scientific and medical research today is conducted in an ethical manner."

That people trust medical researchers is very important, in particular within minority communities suffering from health-care disparities. But nearly 40 years later, the Tuskegee debacle still influences many African Americans, who choose not to participate in clinical trials that could benefit them personally.

One survey concluded that minorities are 200 percent more likely to perceive harm coming from participating in medical research than whites. About 72 percent of blacks said they were afraid they would be used as guinea pigs without their consent.

Another poll showed that nearly 47 percent of African American parents believe medical research involves too much risk, compared with 26 percent of white parents.

As true stories about what happened in Guatemala and Tuskegee make the rounds, even though those episodes occurred decades ago, trust in the medical establishment is further eroded. The resulting impact hurts the people who would benefit most by knowing exactly what drugs and procedures would work best for them.

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