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  • Caroline Metz

Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis

From new developments in mRNA vaccinology to targeted cancer treatments, the United States has made many strides in the medical and research fields. However, these advancements come with a history of unethical trials and experiments, one of which being the Tuskegee study of Untreated Syphilis.

In the early 1900s, there was no known treatment for syphilis, a bacterial infection that can lead to death. In order to study the progression of syphilis, researchers from the U.S Public Health Service promised 600 African American men in Macon County, Alabama free medical care if they enrolled in the project in 1932. 399 of the men had latent syphilis, while the control group of 201 were free of syphilis. These men were told that they were being treated for “bad blood,” which was a common layman term used to generally describe different illnesses.

Penicillin, the recommended treatment for syphilis, became available 15 years into the study. Even with this advancement, the men with syphilis were only given placebos, and the researchers withheld it from the men. As a result, the men went blind, died, or experienced other severe health problems. Though concerns regarding those subjects were raised, the study continued with the ultimate goal being to track all of the participants until they died so their bodies could be analyzed to better understand syphilis progression.

Eventually, the story was leaked to the public and public outrage forced the study to be shut down in July of 1972. When the study finally ended, 28 men had passed away from their syphilis, 40 of the men’s spouses were diagnosed with syphilis, and 100 other participants passed away from complications.

As a result of the Tuskegee study, guidelines were issued to protect human subjects in future experimental research, but many African Americans developed a mistrust of public health officials due to the cruel mistreatment of the men affected. Today, informed consent has been carefully developed as a very important aspect of human subject research. Ensuring that those involved in a study understand its purpose and potential risks and benefits is ethically necessary.

Edited by: Sanjana Anand

Graphic Designed by: Shanzeh Sheikh




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