Syphilis study victims are remembered

by Melanie Evans

A legacy of suspicion and abuse will not end with one apology, Dr. Vanessa Gamble told a crowd of 150 people at Coffman Union on Thursday evening.
As director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, Gamble urged the audience to heed the warnings of the Tuskegee syphilis study.
Conducted in Macon County, Ala., the study involved 400 black men infected with syphilis. Begun in 1932 by the United States Public Health Service, the men went untreated so that the scientists could chart the progression of the disease.
None of the participants were informed of their condition until the study’s conclusion in 1972.
As chairwoman of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee, Gamble’s work sparked President Clinton’s 1997 apology to the eight remaining survivors of the 40-year experiment.
The apology was a significant event, she said. Gamble recounted the tears and audible sobs from the audience gathered in the East Room of the White House on May 16, 1997. Clinton addressed the four survivors who were able to attend the ceremony and family members of those not present.
“The Tuskegee syphilis study continues to cast a shadow over the lives of African-Americans. For many black people it has come to represent the racism that pervades American institutions,” Gamble told the audience.
But moving forward requires more than accepting an apology for one incident in American medical history, she said.
“The problem we must face … is not just the shadow of Tuskegee. We must also confront the shadow of racism that so profoundly affects the lives and beliefs of all people in this country,” she said.
Publicly exposing the Tuskegee experiment in 1972 did not close the book of ethical infractions committed in the name of science, said Jeffrey Khan, director of the University’s Center of Bioethics.
As recently as 1991, 1,500 infants were administered a non-licensed measles vaccine in a program conducted by the Los Angeles County Health Department and the health maintenance organization, Kaiser Permanente.
Participants of the vaccine trial — sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — were primarily Hispanic and African-American. Though parents understood their children were members of a research study, they were never informed the vaccine was unlicensed.
In 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also came under fire for conducting research trials in foreign countries that would be considered illegal and unethical in the United States.
Earlier Thursday, Gamble spoke with about 35 graduate students from the Academic Health Center. Tuskegee should serve as a reminder to the health industry, she said.
“Prejudice can and does influence the medical profession. Medicine is not immune to the prejudices and discrimination that are prevalent in society,” she told the students.
Medical schools need classes to prepare students to work in a multicultural world, Gamble said.
Only one of 141 medical education programs in the United States and Canada offers a separate required course on multicultural medicine, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Gamble will conclude her two-day tour of the University campus with a breakfast meeting today, followed by an address to local high school students in Coffman Union.