I first learned about the secret U.S. government syphilis study conducted on poor black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, during a college class on ethics. The key question up for debate was whether the clinical trial using 600 African-American men was ethical when considering the greater societal good of learning more about the brutal venereal disease.
The U.S. Public Health Service offered annual health exams and burial insurance to the families of the predominantly poor farmers in exchange for drawing their blood and conducting painful spinal taps and other experiments on the men. Those who had syphilis were never told — nor were they ever treated.
There was no doubt about the conclusion of our class debate: The 40-year experiment was a shameful period in our racial history and one of the most heinous public health experiments in modern times. The men should have been given the choice of consent, and they should have been treated with the penicillin that was found to be effective about a decade into the study.
So when I learned that Stanford Health Policy’s Marcella Alsan, MD, PhD, was doing research about the long-term legacy of mistrust in the U.S. medical system resulting from the trials, I was eager to learn more. In a recent study (link to .pdf), she and her co-author Marianne Wanamaker, PhD, from the University of Tennessee determined that the historical disclosure of the study in 1972 is still correlated with increase medical mistrust and mortality in black men. They estimate that life expectancy at age 45 for African-American men fell by up to 1.4 years in response to the disclosure -- and the expectation of life for black men at age 45 today is three years less than their white male peers and five years less than for black women.
In this story and the video above, Alsan explains more about the findings and about a pilot project in Oakland to evaluate the willingness of black men to seek preventative medical screenings.
Video and photo in thumbnail by Nicole Feldman