Between the years of 1932 and 1972 an experiment, which is now termed The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, was conducted on 399 African American men in the late stages of syphilis. It was done by the U.S. Public Health Service in one of the poorest counties in Alabama. These men were never told how serious of a disease they had, they were simply told they were being treated for bad blood. The doctors conducting the study deliberately allowed these men to degenerate from tertiary syphilis because for this particular experiment they needed to collect data from these men once they had died, from their autopsies. Since these men didn’t know what kind of disease they were suffering from, or how serious it really was, they were just happy to know that they were going to be receiving free health care; most of these men had never even been seen by a doctor in their entire lives.
The true reason for this experiment had to be left unknown to the participants to ensure their full cooperation. The study was conducted to try and determine how syphilis affected blacks as opposed to whites, it was thought that whites suffered more neurological complications and blacks suffered more cardiovascular damage. By the time the experiment was over 28 of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 died of complications due to syphilis, 40 of the participants wives had been infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis. It took roughly 40 years before somebody involved in the study made the statement that “nothing learned will prevent, find, or cure a single case of infectious syphilis or bring us closer to our basic mission of controlling venereal disease in the United States.”
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. Syphilis has several different stages, primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. Primary syphilis is usually marked by the presence of a single sore, called a chancre, but there may be more. The chancre is usually firm, round, small and painless. It appears in the spot where the bacterium entered the body and can last from three to six weeks. It heals without treatment, however if treatment is not administered, the infection can progress to the secondary stage. The secondary stage of syphilis is marked by the presence of a skin rash and mucous membrane lesions. The rash appears as rough, red, or reddish brown spots on both the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. In addition to rashes the symptoms for secondary syphilis are fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue. These symptoms will once again resolve on their own but without treatment the infection will progress to latent and late stages of syphilis. Latent syphilis, also termed the hidden stage, begins when the symptoms of primary and secondary syphilis disappear. The latent stage can last for years and the person will continue to show no signs or symptoms. Tertiary syphilis can appear in about 15% of people who do not get treated for syphilis, and it can appear ten to twenty years after the infection was first acquired. The late stages of syphilis can damage the internal organs, including the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Symptoms may include difficulty coordinating muscle movements, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. The damage may even be serious enough to cause death.
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