A bogus study that caused loss of life

Quick notes

  • The Tuskegee experiment secretly diagnosed African-American males with syphilis

  • None of the men were treated for the disease

  • An inquiry in 1972 deemed it ethically unjustified

Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service and Tuskegee University in Alabama undertook a study into untreated syphilis among African-American men. It became known as one of the most unethical experiments in medical history. None of the men knew they were part of the study. Instead, they were told they could avail themselves of free health care for ‘bad blood’ – a catch-all term for a range of illnesses.

The Tuskegee experiment initially focused on 600 men, 399 of whom had the disease. They were given free meals, medical care and free burial insurance and told they would be monitored for six months. Instead, the study lasted for forty years with the men receiving a certificate of appreciation after 25 years.

The researchers and doctors knew that syphilis could be easily treated with penicillin as early as 1947, but none of the men received medication, nor were they ever told they were suffering from the disease.

The experiment begins

Known officially as “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” the experiment commenced in 1932 amongst African-American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. The men were given blood tests to determine whether they had syphilis.

Those that were found to be infected by the disease were given no treatment except placebos such as aspirin and vitamins. Even when their syphilis got worse, nothing was given to the men to treat the disease, even though penicillin was freely available. They were left untreated and progressively worsened, suffering from blindness, tumors, mental health issues and, ultimately, death.

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In the 1960s, Peter Buxtun, a PHS venereal disease investigator in San Francisco raised concerns that the study was unethical. However, the U.S. Public Health Service decided to continue the Tuskegee experiment until all the men had died so that autopsies could be performed and the data recorded.

Later, Buxtun leaked the story to the press. It appeared in the Washington Star on July 25, 1972, in an article by Jean Heller of the Associated Press. By now, 28 African-American participants had died from syphilis, 100 had died from related illnesses, as well as over 40 spouses being infected. Not only that, the disease had also infected many of their children at birth.

The end of the study

As the news story broke across America, there was public outcry and an inquiry was held into the Tuskegee experiment in 1972. An advisory panel reviewed the study and found that the men had agreed to be treated and examined, but they had not been given enough information about it to enable them to give informed consent. The panel declared the Tuskegee experiment as being medically unjustified and ordered it to stop.

None of the men had been told the actual name of the study and its reference to syphilis, nor did they know they had a life-threatening disease. They were not given treatment options or informed that they could receive treatment in the form of penicillin elsewhere. The participants were also not told of the risk to their wives and children. It caused the African-American community to become more distrustful of healthcare providers and medical community.

28 African-American participants died from syphilis, 100 died from related illnesses, as well as over 40 spouses being infected.

In the summer of 1973, the participants of the Tuskegee experiment filed a lawsuit on behalf themselves and their families. The following year, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was agreed upon. The U.S. government also agreed to give the men medical benefits for life and burial services to the participants still living.

Later, the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program was established to ensure those affected were looked after, as well as the wives, widows and children of those who had suffered. In 1997, President Clinton issued a formal apology on behalf of the U.S. government, but for many, it was too late.

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