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Back in the day syphilis was a very deadly and terrible disease. Before the invention of antibiotics there was no practical cure for syphilis and what treatments they had at the time often involved poisonous chemicals such as arsenic or mercury. Those inflicted with the illness could expect a slow painful death with nerve damage, disfigurement, and dementia.

In 1932 the Public Health Service (PHS) commissioned a study with the Tuskegee institute to examine and monitor the stages and symptoms of syphilis. They gathered a group of 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama, 399 of which were infected with syphilis. The rest were used as a control group. The men who participated in the study, most of whom were poor sharecroppers, were enticed by the offer of free healthcare and free funeral services. Little did they know that they were to become pawns in a massive injustice that would turn medical ethics on its head.

The catch of the study was that the subjects were not to know that they had syphilis. When asked, the clinicians told them that they had “bad blood” a local colloquial term that meant a number of different illnesses. Subjects were even given placebos to maintain the illusion that they were receiving treatment. Periodically the subjects would have blood taken, would be given a physical, and would have spinal fluid tapped. When a subject passed away his remains would be autopsied to examine the effect the disease had on the body.

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By World War II the invention of antibiotics, most notably penicillin, had revolutionized healthcare and medicine.  Whereas before syphilis was treated with dangerous, and often useless chemicals, it could now be treated safetly with doses of penicillin.   Essentially syphilis had been cured, so it would seem logical that the Tuskegee study no longer served any purpose.  Despite this the PHS decided to proceed with the study, believing that it should continue until all subjects had died and been autopsied.  When it comes down to it, the clinicians of the PHS had sealed the fate of hundreds of African American men to die a slow and painful death, all in the name of science. The clinicians withheld knowledge of new treatments and cures.  They also discouraged subjects from seeking treatment elsewhere. The study continued on.

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Over two decades later, in 1966, a PHS employee named Baxter Buxtun began to express concerns over the ethics of the Tuskegee study. Two years later an African American epidemiologist working for the PHS named William Carter Jenkins also expressed concerns over the study. The Centers for Disease Control, which then operated the study, immediately went on the defensive. The CDC gained support from the American Health Association, and incredibly they even gained support from local chapters of the National Medical Association, which represented African American physicians. Finally in 1972 Buxton went public with his concerns, and word of the Tuskegee study became front page news all over the country. After a Congressional hearing, the study was shut down mere days later. By then 28 men had died of syphilis, 100 had died of syphilis related complications, 40 wives had been infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. The information gathered by the Tuskegee study was found to be of little scientific value.

In the aftermath of the study, a number of committees were created to regulate medical studies. As well a number of new laws were also created to enforce medical ethics. Among them is now one of the most important in healthcare law called “informed consent”. As for the victims, they received $10million dollars from a lawsuit conducted by the NAACP, as well as free healthcare and funeral services from the Federal Government. An officially apology was finally issued by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

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