Clearing the myths of time: Tuskegee revisited
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More than a quarter of black Americans questioned in a recent survey believe that AIDS was produced in a laboratory, and 16% believe that it was created by the US government to control the black population. In attempting to explain why such mistaken notions are so widely held, Laura Bogart, lead author of the study, says: “Conspiracy beliefs stem from current and historical discrimination against blacks in our healthcare system, including the Tuskegee syphilis study”. The Tuskegee study has become the archetype of unethical research and racism in medicine. However, by citing Tuskegee, is Bogart merely invoking one set of conspiracy beliefs to explain another? Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service (USPHS) studied 600 black men, 399 with untreated latent syphilis and 201 uninfected controls, living around Tuskegee, Macon County, Alabama. Although there was no study protocol, the purpose of the Tuskegee experiments seems to have been to observe patients with untreated latent syphilis to autopsy and verify the presence or absence of syphilitic destructive lesions. According to a detailed analysis of the Tuskegee study by Robert M White in Archives of Internal Medicine, USPHS officers believed that the study “should forever dispel the rather general belief that syphilis is a disease of small consequence to the negro”.