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Paul A. Lombardo
Feb 27, 2024
Feb 26, 2024
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Context: The US Public Health Service’s Guatemala STD experiments (1946-1948) included intentional exposure to pathogens and testing of postexposure prophylaxis methods for syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid in over 1,300 soldiers, commercial sex workers, prison inmates, and psychiatric patients. Though the experiments had officially ended, the biospecimens collected from these subjects continued to be used for research at least into the 1950s.
Methods: We analyzed historical documents—including clinical and laboratory records, correspondence, final reports, and medical records—for information relevant to these biospecimen experiments from the US National Archives. In addition, we researched material from past governmental investigations into the Guatemala STD experiments, including those of the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues and the Guatemalan Comisión Presidencial para el Esclarecimiento de los Experimentos Practicados con Humanos en Guatemala.
Findings: Identified spinal fluid, blood specimens, and tissue collected during the Guatemala diagnostic methodology and intentional exposure experiments were subsequently distributed to laboratories throughout the United States for use in ongoing research until at least 1957. Five psychiatric patient subjects involved in these biospecimen experiments died soon after experimental exposure to STDs. The same US government researchers working with the Guatemala biospecimens after the exposure experiments ended were also working with specimens taken from the Tuskegee syphilis study.
Conclusions: There should be a complete public accounting of whether biospecimens from the Guatemala and Tuskegee experiments are held in US government biorepositories today. If they still exist, these specimens should be retired from such biorepositories and their future disposition determined by stakeholders, including representatives from the communities from which they were derived.
Keywords: research ethics, Guatemala STD experiments, Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Common Rule.
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Volume 96, Issue 2 (pages 244-271) DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12318 Published in 2018
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The Milbank Quarterly is an editorially independent multidisciplinary journal that offers in-depth assessments of the social, economic, political, historical, legal, and ethical dimensions of health and health care policy.