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An Overview of Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Currently, sexually transmitted diseases are at epidemically high levels in the United States. Much like in 16th century Europe where Syphilis was an epidemic, way before Penicillin was ever extracted. Initially, syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, used to be treated using poisonous Mercury, and from it came the famous saying: “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” (Wiseman). Syphilis was an incurable disease. Therefore, medical records of the disease was inaccurate and unreliable.

It had been called by the Brits and Germans “the French disease” and by the French “the Neapolitan disease”. However, it is now remembered as a horribleness committed by the United States government toward the male black African – American population of Tuskegee. The program began with a hopeful goal in mind, to justify treatment programs for African Americans infected with Syphilis. A sponsored study by the Public Health Services to recognize the Southern counties with the highest rates of Syphilis amongst African-American males. In 1929, the Rosenwald Fund, an organization that promoted the education and healthcare of poor African-Americans, started an aggressive treatment using mercury. “Cure rate is less than thirty percent; treatment requires months and side effects are toxic, sometimes fatal”. That same year, the economic depression hit until eventually the Rosenwald Organization was forced to cut fund. By 1932 in a follow up effort the Public Health Services along with the Tuskegee Institute collaborated to start a study with six hundred misinformed African American male participants, 399 of which had already caught the disease. The study was only supported the study if Tuskegee got credit, “and black professionals to be involved.” This is also why Dr. Dibble and Nurse Rivers were assigned to the study.

Participants were told that they are being treated for ‘bad blood’ (CDC) which at the time was a blanket term for many venereal diseases like Gonorrhea, Genital Herpes and Chlamydia. “In exchange for participating, the men received free medical examinations, free meals and burial insurances.” It is important to point out that the majority of participants were farmers and the offers of insurance and medical examinations for free is something they had no access to prior to the study. The ones who already had Syphilis were never told that they have it already, this definitely resulted in their spouses (and other sexual partners) to catch the disease, which led to an exponential growth of it within the population. When it started the study was meant to last for six months but it continued up to a year and then extended whenever there was a breakthrough, resulting in the study to last forty years! For adding horribleness, actually, the men were never treated. Basically, they were getting sicker and even dying.

The researchers were to observe and do study on Syphilis, and not treat the disease, simply studying the effects of Syphilis. The first paper was published in 1934, in which a retaliating (although largely disregarded) paper criticizes the study in 1936 for not treating the patients and misinforming participants. Efforts had been made by the military to “hinder men from getting treatment” (CDC), even when Penicillin was used to treat this disease. They stopped the study after an article was published in July 1972 by the Associated Press regarding the unethical treatment was published. Compensation began to eventually include families of the men affected, with the government promising to provide lifetime medical and burial services.

This is an excerpt from President Clinton’s apology that serves as the only acceptable conclusion of such events “the survivors of the Syphilis study at Tuskegee are a living link to a time not so very long ago that many Americans would prefer not to remember but we dare not forget. It was a time when our nations failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy.” He continues to apologize that a cure was discovered but the participants were denied it. “Our government is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens; their rights were trampled upon.” 

Works Cited

  1. Wiseman, Richard. “One night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury:” Syphilis and “Syphilophobes” in Early Modern England”.
  2. Magnus, Manya. “Essential Readings in Infectious Disease Epidemiology”.
  3. Dawson, Mill. “Syphilis: The Painful History of an Odd Bug”.
  4. Clinton, Bill. “Bill Clinton Apologizes for Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”.
  5. CDC. “Tuskegee Study, 1932-1972”
  6. ZDog. “Treat A Patient’s Partner for STDs w/o Seeing Them??”.         

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