Uncovered old pictures provide documents that US doctors working for the government carried out unethical experiments on disabled citizens and prison inmates.
During a meeting in Washington, US officials acknowledged that in the 20th century government doctors had done a series of medical experiments on the country’s own citizens that often involved making healthy people sick.
While much of the experiments were carried out 40 to 80 years ago, it is the backdrop for this week’s meeting in Washington of a presidential bioethics commission.
The meeting was triggered by the US government’s apology last year for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago.
However, later on the US officials also acknowledged there had been dozens of similar experiments in America, which often involved making healthy people sick.
An Associated Press review of medical journal reports and decades-old press clippings found more than 40 such studies, which some just amounted to curiosity-satisfying experiments that hurt people but provided no useful result.
The emerged shocking experiments included infecting mental patients in Connecticut with hepatitis, exposing prisoners in Maryland to a pandemic flu virus, injecting cancer cells into chronically ill people at a New York hospital, and infecting prison inmates with gonorrhea at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
Media never covered most of the newly uncovered studies done from the 1940s to the 1960s. However, in those reported the coverage centered on the breakthrough and not how test subjects were treated.
At that time, many famous researchers believed that it was legitimate to do experiment on people who did not have full rights in society such as prisoners, mental patients or the poor blacks.
However, experts believe that all such studies violated the concept of “first do no harm,” that is a fundamental medical principle.
Although, individuals included in these studies were usually described as volunteers, historians and ethicists have questioned how well these people understood what was to be done to them and why, or whether they were coerced.
“When you give somebody a disease — even by the standards of their time — you really cross the key ethical norm of the profession,” said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics.
Using prisoners as guinea pigs was continued in the US for decades and even increased significantly late in 1940s and 1950s after the huge growth of drug industries.
This happened while prosecution of Nazi doctors in 1947 led to the “Nuremberg Code,” a set of international rules to protect human test subjects. However, many US doctors ignored them for years, arguing that the rule applied to Nazi atrocities and not to American medicine.
In later decades after the new guidelines enacted by the US government limited the human experiments on American prisoners and mental patients, researchers looked to other countries to find new experimental fields.
The target was poor countries that launching clinical trials in them were much cheaper and less limited due to the lack of rules. Even more the situation of the poor nations brought the US researchers and drug companies new opportunities to find patients who were taking no medication, a factor that can complicate tests of other drugs.
While, later additional sets of guidelines were enacted against overseas experiments, some reports still suggest that US industries are continuing their habits of using people instead of animal or lab samples.
During the last 15 years, two international studies sparked outrage. One was likened to Tuskegee. US-funded doctors failed to give the AIDS drug AZT to all the HIV-infected pregnant women in a study in Uganda even though it would have protected their newborns.
The other study, by Pfizer Inc., gave an antibiotic named Trovan to children with meningitis in Nigeria, although there were doubts about its effectiveness for that disease. Critics blamed the experiment for the deaths of 11 children and the disabling of scores of others.
Last year, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general reported that between 40 and 65 percent of clinical studies of federally regulated medical products were done in other countries in 2008, and that proportion probably has grown.
The report also noted that US regulators inspected less than 1 percent of foreign clinical trial sites.
Uncovering what the US doctors had done in Guatemala was an opening for the Obama administration to have the bioethics panel seek a new evaluation of international medical studies.
To focus on federally funded international studies, the bioethics commission has formed an international panel of about a dozen experts. Regarding the Guatemala study, it has hired 15 staff investigators and is working with more historians and consulting experts.
The panel is to send a report to President Barack Obama by September. Any further steps would be up to the administration.