Primum non nocere

“First do no harm,” a principle precept of medical ethics, hasn’t prevented medical experiments that exploit the poor.

By Miguel De La Torre

We expect that our medical professionals would, first, do no harm.

Race and ethnic identity were a major component in the Tuskegee and Guatemalan medical experiments. Yet, ironically, they were conducted at the time that white Americans were prosecuting Nazi officials at the Nuremberg trials immediately following the Second World War for carrying out medical experiments on human beings.

Conclusion of the Doctors’ Trial led to the establishment of what came to be called the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics. Medical practitioners cannot participate in human experimentations without first obtaining voluntary consent from participants.

Additionally, unnecessary harm to the subject should be avoided. Accounts of U.S. medical experiments on humans are troubling in the shadow of the Nuremberg trials.

Nonetheless, it remained common to conduct medical experiments on prison inmates and the disabled. Reports exist of mental patients in Connecticut being infected with hepatitis, prisoners in Maryland having pandemic flu virus squirted up their noses, and the chronically ill at a New York hospital being injected with cancer cells.

At least 40 such cases of human medical experiments were carried out by the U.S. government within the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1960s. It was then legitimate in the minds of health professionals to experiment on those who lacked full rights within society, specifically prisoners, the mentally disabled and poor people of color.

More recently, about 1,500 6-month-olds, predominately black and Hispanic babies in Los Angeles, were used as human guinea pigs in June 1990. They were given an experimental measles vaccine developed by Kaiser Permanente. The parents of these children were never informed that the vaccine, which was used before in two-thirds of world countries with devastating results, was experimental.

Another troubling example of human testing also occurred in the ’90s at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. The prominent Baltimore medical institute knowingly exposed more than a hundred black children, as young as a year old, to lead poisoning so they could periodically test their blood to study the cumulative hazards of lead poising.

The children were endangered in homes with high levels of lead dust even while Kennedy Krieger Institute assured parents that the houses were “lead safe.” The six-year program of human testing led to permanent neurological injuries among some of the children.

Just as troubling is the fact that human medical experiments continue to occur using the world’s poor as subjects. Developing nations with lower medical standards lack the means to enforce the rules already on the books effectively.

At such places, foreign drug companies have been accused of often testing their experimental drugs on the poor and illiterate without obtaining their consent or properly explaining the risks involved.

For example, in 2009, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer agreed (without admitting any wrongdoing) to a $75 million settlement over the death of Nigerian children who participated in testing a new antibiotic called Trovan.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ report reveals that between 40 and 65 percent of clinical studies of federally regulated medical products were conducted in foreign countries in 2008, a percentage that more than likely continues to grow. Yet, problematically, U.S. regulators were able to inspect less than 1 percent of these foreign clinical trial sites.

Is it any wonder that the world’s poor and non-whites have a healthy suspicion of Euroamerican medical professionals?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.