When you go to your medicine cabinet and reach for that pill you need, do you ever wonder just how scientists found out that this particular pill would be great for solving your particular problem? If you’re like me, the answer is no. I’m usually just thankful that I have what I need. Considering that mindset, it’s easy to understand how unethical human testing went unchecked for years without public outcry.
It is important to first point out that there are a lot of clinical trials that are ethical, above board and very useful. The experiments the Associated Press brought to light were ones funded by the federal government and done on disabled persons, poor people or prisoners. In many cases, patients were given a disease without their knowledge or consent as well as purposely denied treatments.
The U.S. government apologized for the infecting of prisoners with syphilis in Guatemala by federal doctors some 65 years ago. This apology sparked interest in just how many “patients” were used and how often did this type of testing go on? Even further, does it still go on today? Most of these trials are older – 40 to 80 years old - but still, the historical value of the lesson is important. Namely, just how far should doctors go in the name of science?
- One of the most well-known cases is the Tuskegee syphilis study, where 600 black men were deliberately not given enough treatment even after penicillin became available.
- In 1942 a federally funded study injected an experimental flu vaccine in mentally ill patients in a state-run facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. These same patients were exposed to the flu months later.
- Also, in federally-funded studies in the 1940’s, mentally ill patients from institutions in Middleton and Norwich, Connecticut were purposely exposed to hepatitis.
- Prisoners were constantly victimized in these kinds of situations. Mississippi inmates were recruited to test whether the illness pellagra was caused by dietary deficiency, the AP article related. For a study done in 1957, researchers sprayed the virus for the Asian flu up the noses of 23 inmates at Patuxent prison in Jessup, Maryland. These were later compared to 32 virus-exposed inmates who had been given a new vaccine.
During this time, some of the researchers went on to become inventors and innovators in the field of science and medicine. The justification given was that these experiments were done to improve medicine, basically ignoring the 1947 Nuremberg Code – which were a set of international rules drafted to protect human test subjects, drafted after the prosecution of certain Nazi doctors. What did not help is that there was virtually no outcry from the public – that is until 1963 when patients were injected with cancer cells during a study.
Do we have it all under control? Is unethical human testing eradicated? Not completely. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated that last year approximately 40-65 percent of clinical studies were in other countries as of 2008, a number that has probably increased by now. Admittedly, monitoring research is very difficult, experts said. So how do we know more innocent victims are not taken advantage of?
For this specific reason, the Obama administration has developed a bioethics commission to get this daunting task done. Staff investigators, historians and consulting experts will look into the previously mentioned Guatemala study. There will also be considerable monitoring of federally-funded international studies done with the help of experts in ethics, science and clinical research.
Sources: Associated Press, The Washington Post
Dita Faulkner is a freelance writer who loves to write poetry. Please feel free to click on the word preview and view hers at: