Monday, April 24, 2017

T is for the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis

Image: Participants in Tuskegee Study

Attribution: By Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Public Health Service. Health Services and Mental Health Administration. Center for Disease Control. Venereal Disease Branch (1970 - 1973). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male started with good intentions. In the 1920s, estimates of syphilis in the population at reproductive age were high--35%. The treatment at the time involved heavy metals mercury and bismuth, but the cure rate with such medicine was less than 30%. Side effects of these toxic materials were bad and sometimes fatal.

In 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression started. Funding for the original program was cut, so in 1932, the decision was made to simply study the progression of the disease with about 400 negro men with syphilis and 200 without syphilis (the control group).


Image: Doctor draws blood from participant

Attribution: Wikipedia Commons


Despite urban myths to the contrary, no one was injected with syphilis, but the subjects were promised free treatment, meals, and burial insurance without knowing their diagnosis, what treatments they would receive, or what other treatments might be available. This lead to several abuses.

Spinal taps were performed without anesthesia to study the neurological effects of the disease. When penicillin became available in the 1940s as a safe and effective treatment to replace the dangerous heavy metals, the study participants were not informed. In fact, the decision was made to deliberately keep these men from receiving penicillin in order to continue the study in 1936, 1940, and again in 1947.

Even when the ethics of the study were questioned in 1968, the CDC "reaffirmed (the) need for study and gained local medical societies' support." Which societies, you ask? Both the AMA (American Medical Association) and the NMA (the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients)!


Image: Depression Era poster 

Attribution: Wikipedia Commons


And that's not all. Since the men with syphilis were not aware of their diagnosis, they did not know they could pass the disease to their wives through sexual contact. They did not know that their children could be born with the disease.

The study lasted 40 years.

Finally, a press leak in 1972 ended the study for good, but it was too late for the victims. Besides the men who died from untreated syphilis, 40 wives contracted the disease and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

After the study was made public, laws were put into place to protect participants in medical studies so that they would have informed consent, knowledge about the treatments received, and knowledge about alternative treatments. A settlement of ten million dollars was awarded to the victims for lifetime medical benefits and burial services. President Bill Clinton issued an apology. The Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care was established.

Have you ever heard of this study? What bit surprised you the most? That the men didn't even know they had syphilis? That penicillin was denied to them? Or that the CDC supported the study even as late as 1969?

Sources:

Wikipedia, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

The New Social Worker: The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and Its Implications for the 21st Century

CDC: The Tuskegee Timeline


118 comments:

  1. I've heard of this debacle, and it is an appalling abuse of power, especially the failure to grant INFORMED consent. It's racist thinking at its worst, really--that these were somehow not fully people, but objects, no more valued than lab rats. Had the study participants (victims, really) been white, there's no way they would have let them go untreated and spreading illness to others. Those who ran the study should have faced criminal charges and jail time, because what they did was not perpetuated by accident, but with intent to harm.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, forgot to leave a link (feeling too mad at those horrid scientists!)
      Laurel's Leaves: T = Thankful

      Delete
  2. Wow, I didn't know this about Tuskegee institute. Man, the inhumane things people do to one another. At the U, they experiment on mice but that's as far as it goes (I think).
    T is for Terrific Actress
    http://theglobaldig.blogspot.com/2017/04/u-is-for-unbelievable-actress.html

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  3. Had read about Syphilis in our science textbook, but didn't know about this study.
    Sad when newborn kids have to suffer for no fault of theirs.
    Diseases must be attended to immediately. That makes faster cure possible.

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  4. what humans do to each other. i had not heard about this. i'm shocked by who allowed this to continue.

    i feel this is something Mengele would have done. unconscionable.

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  5. I hadn't heard of this study, but it sounds absolutely awful. I can't believe the researchers agreed to participate in it.

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  6. I hadn't heard of this study, but the entire thing is appalling! Thank God for the safeguards that are in place for study participants today. That's in America, of course; I imagine that study participants in other parts of the world may not be as fortunate!

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  7. I had heard of the study and it is sickening. These "mad scientists' should be in jail. I imagine they are in their graves and have met their maker.

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  8. Wow. That is downright horrible. I've heard about this study briefly before, plus other studies that have been done where the person being experimented on is treated horribly. I can't even imagine...

    Visiting from the A to Z Challenge. See My “T” post here: https://lydiahowe.com/2017/04/24/t-is-for-tenacity-atozchallenge/

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  9. Such inequities in our system and all because our skin has different pigmentation. Did you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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  10. I did not know about this study, it's a bit shocking. Did not know either that babies could be born with syphilis, that was a really horrible thing to do the women and the babies.

    Nilanjana
    Madly-in-Verse

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  11. Sadly, none of it surprises me, the arrogance of scientists who think that if it's "for the good of humanity", it's okay. Mengele would be laughing his head off! Speaking of which, did you know Jspanese scientists during the war were also doing horrible experiments? Only, unlike the Nazi ones, theirs worked, so after the war, they were quietly let off in exchange for their notes.

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  12. Great post. Thanks for sharing!

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  13. My husband grew up in Oak Ridge and he was surprised when he got older that they conducted experiments on African-American males there, too. Just disturbing.

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  14. Sadly, I had heard of this. All of it. *shakes head* What some people do in the pursuit of science.

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  15. The lack of concern for human beings in this kind of programme is appalling. We shouldn't need laws to make this kind of morally awful treatment unjustified, but thank goodness they are now in place.
    Sophie
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles - Dragon Diaries

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  16. Appalling and quite disturbing. Yet I'm sure similar experiments are still running without the public's knowledge... Happy A-to-Z-ing.

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  17. I'm appalled but not surprised. I've heard of other stories about prisoners being used as subjects, too. Hopefully, such things won't happen again, but maybe that's naive.

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  18. This pisses me off. I first studied it in my undergrad for one of my history classes. I am so appalled and disturbed that ANYONE thought this would be okay to do to another human being. It makes me sick.

    Once Upon a Time

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  19. That's such a black mark in American history. It's shocking to think about how people once saw nothing unethical about experimenting on people deemed "inferior," be they of other races, in prison, or mentally disabled children.

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