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Tuskegee Experiments: What Happened and What We Can Learn

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Disclaimer: I need to start this off by saying that this isn’t some kind of anti-vax rant, nor does this mean that attempts at curing diseases are automatically attempts to experiment on, or harm civilians. The government isn’t ever there for you in the truest sense. However, knowing this doesn’t mean that everything they do is evil by default. 

What the US government did in Tuskegee exemplifies how vile people with power can be; especially in the name of their supposed greater good. Starting in 1932, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wanted to study the long-term impacts of syphilis and its natural progression  when left untreated. Rather than, say, ethically observing volunteers, the government of the day thought it was a great idea to simply lie to the African-American population of Tuskegee, Alabama. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s start with the history of the study.

A previous study from 1928 titled the “Oslo Study of Untreated Syphilis” attempted to trace the evolution of symptoms and effects of the disease in untreated males. That study was conducted after the fact, and built on the medical histories of the (it needs to be noted here) entirely white study group.

The Tuskegee study, in turn, came from the desire to study the evolution of the disease and its pathological impact in real time. This meant they would need to study people that already had latent syphilis and leave them without real treatment for the duration of the study. 

Now, I totally understand where they were coming from. Physicians wanted the in-depth study of a disease that is known for deafness, mental illness, blindness, collapse of the central nervous system, heart disease, bone deterioration, and death by leaving it untreated in those suffering from it. It would clearly be hard to get willing participants to sign up for guaranteed incapacitating suffering. Obviously, the ‘solution’ at the time was to use black people, and lie to them.

The PHS and CDC of the day collaborated with the Tuskegee Institute, a historically African-American college, under the guise of offering free health care. What was actually given was placebos, purposely ineffective treatments, and diagnostic methods dressed up as treatments in-and-of themselves. Of the 600 people that initially signed up, 399 had previously undiagnosed syphilis and 201 were kept separate to act as a control group. 

This 1932 study was meant to be a 6-month study. While the deception and racial targeting alone would be enough for us today to call the study a terrible violation of rights, it gets worse, and truly jumps into the grounds of evil. 

This 6-month study ran until 1972. For those slower at math, this means they ran the deception (I’m not going to give it the respect of calling it a study any further) 100 times longer than initially promised and planned. For 50 years, the unwitting participants that had syphilis suffered without access to even the ineffective and dangerous treatments of the day.

Penicillin, the common and most effective treatment for the disease today, didn’t come about until 1947. Prior to that, people would have been treated with bismuth, compound 606 (an arsenic-based treatment which was about as good as it sounds), and mercury ointments. The participants were given some of the treatments initially. This alone undid the ‘purpose’ of the deception by giving treatment while claiming this was about researching untreated cases.

Surely, I hear you say, these people would have noticed they were suffering from the disease and sought out help and treatment elsewhere. You would be right. When World War II kicked off, 256 of the infected subjects registered for the draft and, during the routine medical examinations, were found to have syphilis. The military of the time ordered them to get the proper treatment for the disease before they were allowed to join the armed forces. The PHS stepped in and prevented them from potentially being cured before it was too late. When penicillin became popular and rapid treatment centers popped up across the country, the researchers again stepped in to prevent the participants from getting their much-needed treatment.

This would be a good time to include the fact that this deception wasn’t hidden or buried under conspiracy. They openly published their clinical data in 1934 and its first report was published in 1936. The medical community and government were fully aware this was going on, which methods were being used, and that the ultimate end goal was to track the disease all the way until death. No one did a thing.

No one, that is, until the whistleblower Peter Buxtun who had worked at the PHS came forward in 1972. It should also be included that the CDC and PHS had re-evaluated whether or not to continue the deception several times over its 50 years, as recently as 1969. The reason it’s important to note has to do with the implications of the Nuremberg Trials and the codes of medical conduct it created. The World Health Organization in 1964 declared that any forms of human experiments required the full informed consent of the participants, after seeing the medical horrors committed in the name of progress by Nazi Germany. Despite this, the PHS never looked at ending or changing their study on those grounds until the whistleblower brought it all to an end.

Of the original 600 participants, only 74 were alive by the end of the experiment. Twenty-eight died of syphilis,  and 100 from related complications out of the original 399 infected. They also passed the damage on as 40 of their wives ended up also infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis as a result of their unethical mistreatment.

When all was said and done, the US Government lost a $10 million (nearly $50 million today) lawsuit to the victims. The government rapidly put together commissions to more thoroughly review any human experiments to prevent a similar abuse of ethics from happening again; whether this was done out of respect for the citizens, or just to avoid repetitive and costly lawsuits is another story.

People like to reference this atrocity as an argument against publicly provided health since that was the lie that brought in the participants. Regardless of where you stand on that particular issue, this is a poor argument for it. This is also a terrible argument against vaccination, as the lack of such treatment was exactly what made this so terrible.

This horrific piece of American history best serves as a cautionary tale. The people running the experiment let their prejudice and racist views of African-Americans mingle with their desire to further our knowledge, and help prevent disease. All people are subject to bias and will act on it when given a reason they deem acceptable. Even good intentions can turn into horrific evils against our fellow humans if we allow those intentions to become clouded with negative views of people or the world. Intent and action do not always align with each other. When people start acting purely from the greater good and offering to help everyone from that top-down perch, watch out for the well being of the individual. They’re the one that will need the help the most.

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