What Is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study?

syphilis blood testing

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was started in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service, together with the Tuskegee Institute
  • Both organizations aimed to record the natural history of syphilis in order to justify treatment programs for African-American people affected by this STD, as well as to check whether syphilis affected black men differently compared to white men
  • Only 74 of the original participants were alive after the Tuskegee Study was stopped, as 28 men died of syphilis, while a further hundred or so passed away due to complications

Over the years, there have been various studies conducted on syphilis. However, one particular syphilis study made headlines for the wrong reasons. This is known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was also called the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male."1

Background Information on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

This Tuskegee Syphilis experiment was started in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service, together with the Tuskegee Institute. Both organizations aimed to record the natural history of syphilis in order to justify treatment programs for African-American people affected by this STD, as well as to check whether syphilis affected black men differently compared to white men.2 This study, while it was projected to only last for six months, was extended to 40 years.3

This study began with 600 black men: 399 had syphilis, while 201 didn't have the disease. Researchers told subjects that they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe conditions like syphilis, anemia and fatigue. In exchange for participating in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, free rides to and from the clinic at Tuskegee University in Alabama, free medical treatments for minor ailments and burial insurance.

What Went Wrong in This Study?

Things went downhill for the Tuskegee Syphilis study in July 1972. The Associated Press published a story about the experiment, causing a public outcry that prompted the then Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs to form an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The panel was composed of nine members from the fields of medicine, law, religion, education, labor, health administration and public affairs.4

The panelists discovered that the subjects agreed freely to be examined and treated. Sadly, there was a lack of evidence showing researchers informed the men about the study or its real purpose. The men were essentially misled. Participants were not:

  • Provided with the facts needed to deliver informed consent
  • Informed that they had syphilis
  • Given a choice of quitting the study

The men weren’t also given adequate treatment for their condition. Even as penicillin became the “drug of choice” for this STD in 1947, it was discovered that the researchers didn’t offer penicillin to the subjects. If ever the subjects received “treatments” for “bad blood,” these were actually placebos, aspirin or mineral supplements. Medical staff also allowed nothing to interfere with this study. Case in point: while 250 subjects were drafted for service during World War 2, strings were pulled to ensure that they remained in the study.5,6

This panel concluded that the Tuskegee Study was “ethically unjustified.” In October 1972, the panel advised stopping the study immediately and, a month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced that the study ended.

The Tuskegee Study’s Aftermath

Only 74 of the original participants were alive after the Tuskegee Study was stopped, as 28 men died of syphilis, while a further hundred or so passed away due to complications. Plus, 40 wives were infected with syphilis and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.7

A class-action lawsuit was filed in the summer of 1973 on behalf of the participants and their children. A year later, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. As part of this settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. To ensure these services will be provided accordingly, the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established.8

In 1975, wives, widows and offspring of the participants were added to the THBP, and the program was expanded in 1995 to include health and medical benefits. The CDC was given the responsibility of handling the THBP, which still remains today in the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

The last Tuskegee Syphilis study participant died in January 2004, while the last widow receiving THBP benefits died five years later in January 2009. Currently, there are 12 offspring currently receiving medical and health benefits.

MORE ABOUT SYPHILIS

Syphilis: Introduction

What Is Syphilis?

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Congenital Syphilis

Syphilis Stages

Syphilis Causes

Syphilis Transmission

Syphilis Symptoms

Syphilis Treatment

Syphilis Testing

Syphilis Prevention

Syphilis FAQ

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