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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part III: Parapsychology is the Role Model for “CAM” Research

This is the third post in this series*; please see Part II for a review. Part II offered several arguments against the assertion that it is a good idea to perform efficacy trials of medical claims that have been refuted by basic science or by other, pre-trial evidence. This post will add to those arguments, continuing to identify the inadequacies of the tools of Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) as applied to such claims.

Prof. Simon Replies

Prior to the posting of Part II, statistician Steve Simon, whose views had been the impetus for this series, posted another article on his blog, responding to Part I of this series. He agreed with some of what both Dr. Gorski and I had written:

The blog post by Dr. Atwood points out a critical distinction between “biologically implausible” and “no known mechanism of action” and I must concede this point. There are certain therapies in CAM that take the claim of biological plausibility to an extreme. It’s not as if those therapies are just implausible. It is that those therapies must posit a mechanism that “would necessarily violate scientific principles that rest on far more solid ground than any number of equivocal, bias-and-error-prone clinical trials could hope to overturn.” Examples of such therapies are homeopathy, energy medicine, chiropractic subluxations, craniosacral rhythms, and coffee enemas.

The Science Based Medicine site would argue that randomized trials for these therapies are never justified. And it bothers Dr. Atwood when a systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration states that no conclusions can be drawn about homeopathy as a treatment for asthma because of a lack of evidence from well conducted clinical trials. There’s plenty of evidence from basic physics and chemistry that can allow you to draw strong conclusions about whether homeopathy is an effective treatment for asthma. So the Cochrane Collaboration is ignoring this evidence, and worse still, is implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) calling for more research in this area.

On the other hand:

There are a host of issues worth discussing here, but let me limit myself for now to one very basic issue. Is any research justified for a therapy like homeopathy when basic physics and chemistry will provide more than enough evidence by itself to suggest that such research is futile(?) Worse still, the randomized trial is subject to numerous biases that can lead to erroneous conclusions.

I disagree for a variety of reasons.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Science and Medicine

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Placebo effects without deception? Well, not exactly…

In discussing “alternative” medicine it’s impossible not to discuss, at least briefly, placebo effects. Indeed, one of the most common complaints we at SBM voice about clinical trials of alternative medicine is the lack of adequate controls — meaning adequate controls for placebo and nonspecific effects. Just type “acupuncture” in the search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog masthead, and you’ll pull up a number of discussions of acupuncture clinical trials that SBM bloggers have written over the last three years. If you check some of these posts, you’ll find that in nearly every case we spend considerable time and effort discussing whether the placebo or sham control used was adequate, noting that, the better the sham controls, the less likely acupuncture studies are to have a positive result.

Some of the less clueless advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) seem to realize that much of what they do relies on placebo effects. As a result, they tend to argue that what they do is useful and good because it’s “harnessing the placebo effect” for therapeutic purpose. One problem that advocates of SBM (like those of us at SBM who have taken an interest in this topic) tend to have with this argument is that it has always been assumed that a good placebo requires on some level at least some deception of the patient by either saying or implying that he is receiving an active treatment or medicine of some kind. This, we have argued, is a major ethical problem in using placebos in patients, and advocates of placebo medicine appear to agree, because they frequently argue that placebo effects can be harnessed without deception. Indeed, just last week there was an example of this argument plastered all over multiple news outlets and blogs in the form of stories and posts with headlines and titles like:

Except for one, every one of these articles or blog posts discussing a new study in PLoS ONE that purports to have found that placebo effects can be elicited in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without deception buys completely into that very thesis. For example, here is an example, taken from the Reuters story about this study:

Placebos can help patients feel better, even if they are fully aware they are taking a sugar pill, researchers reported on Wednesday on an unusual experiment aimed to better understand the “placebo effect.”

Nearly 60 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome reported they felt better after knowingly taking placebos twice a day, compared to 35 percent of patients who did not get any new treatment, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study, said in a statement.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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The “decline effect”: Is it a real decline or just science correcting itself?

‘Tis the season, it would seem, for questioning the scientific method.

You might recall that back in October, I was a bit miffed by an article in The Atlantic entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science and expressed my annoyance in one of my typical logorrheic posts. Then, a mere couple of weeks later, Steve Simon wrote a rather scathing criticism of the very concept of science-based medicine, which I ended up answering, again in my usual inimitable logorrheic fashion. Unfortunately, these things often come in threes. Well, maybe not always threes. It’s not as though this “rule” is anything like the count for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, where “Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.” Except that five isn’t always right out when it comes to these sorts of criticisms of science and/or science-based medicine.

But enough of my pathetic attempt to channel Mark Crislip. The third count in articles expressing skepticism of the scientific method and science-based medicine comes, for purposes of my discussion, in the form of an article in The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer entitled The Truth Wears Off: Is There Something Wrong With the Scientific Method? Unfortunately, the full article is restricted only to subscribers. Fortunately, a reader sent me a PDF of the article; otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered to discuss it. Also, Lehrer himself has elaborated a bit on questions asked of him since the article’s publication and published fairly sizable excerpts from his article here and here. In any case, I’ll try to quote as much of the article as I think I can get away with without violating fair use, and those of you who don’t have a subscription to The New Yorker might just have to trust my characterization of the rest. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s what I have to work with.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Of SBM and EBM Redux. Part II: Is it a Good Idea to test Highly Implausible Health Claims?

Review

This is the second post in a series* prompted by an essay by statistician Stephen Simon, who argued that Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM) is not lacking in the ways that we at Science-Based Medicine have argued. David Gorski responded here, and Prof. Simon responded to Dr. Gorski here. Between that response and the comments following Dr. Gorski’s post it became clear to me that a new round of discussion would be worth the effort.

Part I of this series provided ample evidence for EBM’s “scientific blind spot”: the EBM Levels of Evidence scheme and EBM’s most conspicuous exponents consistently fail to consider all of the evidence relevant to efficacy claims, choosing instead to rely almost exclusively on randomized, controlled trials (RCTs). The several quoted Cochrane abstracts, regarding homeopathy and Laetrile, suggest that in the EBM lexicon, “evidence” and “RCTs” are almost synonymous. Yet basic science or preliminary clinical studies provide evidence sufficient to refute some health claims (e.g., homeopathy and Laetrile), particularly those emanating from the social movement known by the euphemism “CAM.”

It’s remarkable to consider just how unremarkable that last sentence ought to be. EBM’s founders understood the proper role of the rigorous clinical trial: to be the final arbiter of any claim that had already demonstrated promise by all other criteria—basic science, animal studies, legitimate case series, small controlled trials, “expert opinion,” whatever (but not inexpert opinion). EBM’s founders knew that such pieces of evidence, promising though they may be, are insufficient because they “routinely lead to false positive conclusions about efficacy.” They must have assumed, even if they felt no need to articulate it, that claims lacking such promise were not part of the discussion. Nevertheless, the obvious point was somehow lost in the subsequent formalization of EBM methods, and seems to have been entirely forgotten just when it ought to have resurfaced: during the conception of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Introduction to Evidence-Based Complementary Medicine.

Thus, in 2000, the American Heart Journal (AHJ) could publish an unchallenged editorial arguing that Na2EDTA chelation “therapy” could not be ruled out as efficacious for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease because it hadn’t yet been subjected to any large RCTs—never mind that there had been several small ones, and abundant additional evidence from basic science, case studies, and legal documents, all demonstrating that the treatment is both useless and dangerous. The well-powered RCT had somehow been transformed, for practical purposes, from the final arbiter of efficacy to the only arbiter. If preliminary evidence was no longer to have practical consequences, why bother with it at all? This was surely an example of what Prof. Simon calls “Poorly Implemented Evidence Based Medicine,” but one that was also implemented by the very EBM experts who ought to have recognized the fallacy.

There will be more evidence for these assertions as we proceed, but the main thrust of Part II is to begin to respond to this statement from Prof. Simon: “There is some societal value in testing therapies that are in wide use, even though there is no scientifically valid reason to believe that those therapies work.”

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, History, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Science-based medicine and improving patient safety and quality of care

The last couple of weeks, I feel as though I may have been slumming a bit. After all, comparatively speaking it’s not that difficult to take on claims that homeopathy benefits fibromyalgia or Oprah Winfrey promoting faith healing quackery. Don’t get me wrong. Taking on such topics is important (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). For one thing, some quackery is so harmful and egregiously anti-science that it needs to be discussed. For another thing, they serve as examples of how even the most obvious quackery can seem plausible. All it takes are the cognitive quirks to which all humans are prone plus a bit of ignorance about what constitutes good scientific evidence to support the efficacy of a given therapy for a given condition.

So let’s move on to something a little more challenging.

Of all the attacks on science-based medicine (SBM), one of the favorite attacks made by its opponents is the claim that SBM is dangerous, that it kills or harms far more people than it helps. An excellent example of this occurred when quackery promoter Joseph Mercola teamed up with fellow quackery promoter Gary Null to write a widely cited article entitled Death by Medicine. Using the famous Institute of Medicine article that estimated deaths from medical errors to be on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 per year, Mercola and Null wove a scary story meant to imply that conventional medicine does far more harm than good. Of course, as our very own Harriet Hall pointed out, they concentrated solely on the harm, which makes it difficult to determine whether the harms truly outweigh the benefits. As Peter Lipson puts it, such arguments are intentionally designed to take our fears and exaggerate them out of all perspective. The idea behind the fallacious arguments used by the likes of Mercola and Null is that, because “conventional” medicine has problems and needs to improve its safety record, the quackery they promote must be a viable alternative to SBM. Yes, that is basically what their arguments boil down to.

The fallacious manner in which advocates for quackery such as Joe Mercola, Mike Adams, and Gary Null use and abuse any shortcoming of SBM that they can find (and, when they can’t find any, make some up) notwithstanding, there is a problem in SBM. Indeed, over the last 10 years or so since the IOM report, reducing the toll due to medical errors has — finally — become an incredibly important issue in medicine. Indeed, I myself have become involved in a state-wide quality improvement initiative in breast cancer as our site’s project director. As a result, I’m being forced to learn more about the nitty-gritty of quality improvement than I had ever thought I would. Combine this with a study published just before the Thanksgiving holiday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and I’m learning that improving care is incredibly difficult. The issues involved are many and tend to involve systems rather than individuals, which is why the solutions often bump up against the individualistic culture to which physicians belong. Moreover, such efforts, like comparative effectiveness research (CER), tend to earn less prestige than scientific research because, like CER, quality improvement initiatives do not in general look for new information and scientific understanding but rather at how we apply what we already know.
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Integrating patient experience into research and clinical medicine: Towards true “personalized medicine”

We advocate science-based medicine (SBM) on this blog. However, from time to time, I feel it necessary to point out that science-based medicine is not the same thing as turning medicine into a science. Rather, we argue that what we do as clinicians should be based in science. This is not a distinction without a difference. If we were practicing pure science, we would be theoretically able to create algorithms and flowcharts telling us how to care for patients with any given condition, and we would never deviate from them. It is true that we do have algorithms and flowcharts suggesting guidelines for care for a wide variety of conditions, but there is wide latitude in them, and often a physician’s “judgment” still ends up trumping the guidelines. While it is also true that sometimes physicians have an overinflated view of the quality of their own “clinical judgment,” sometimes to the point of leading them to reject well-established science, as Dr. Jay Gordon frequently does, what I consider to be physician’s judgment is knowing how to apply existing medical science to individual patients based on their circumstances and, yes, even desires and values.

Indeed, if there’s one area where SBM has all too often fallen short in the past, it’s in taking into account the patient’s experience with various treatments. What got me thinking (again) about this issue was an article by Dr. Pauline Chen in the New York Times last Thursday entitled Listening to Patients Living With Illness. She begins her article with an anecdote:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Answering a criticism of science-based medicine

Attacks on science-based medicine (SBM) come in many forms. There are the loony forms that we see daily from the anti-vaccine movement, quackery promoters like Mike Adams and Joe Mercola, those who engage in “quackademic medicine,” and postmodernists who view science as “just another narrative,” as valid as any other or even view science- and evidence-based medicine as “microfascism.” Sometimes, these complaints come from self-proclaimed champions of evidence-based medicine (EBM) who, their self-characterization otherwise, show signs of having a bit of a soft spot for the ol’ woo. Then sometimes there are thoughtful, serious criticisms of some of the assumptions that underlie SBM.

The criticism I am about to address tries to be one of these but ultimately fails because it attacks a straw man version of SBM.

True, the criticism of SBM I’m about to address does come from someone named Steve Simon, who vocally supports EBM but doesn’t like the the criticism of EBM implicit in the very creation of the concept of SBM. Simon has even written a very good deconstruction of postmodern attacks on evidence-based medicine (EBM) himself, as well as quite a few other good discussions of medicine and statistics. Unfortunately, in his criticism, Simon appears to have completely missed the point about the difference between SBM and EBM. As a result, his criticisms of SBM wind up being mostly the application of a flamethrower to a Burning Man-sized straw man representing what he thinks SBM to be. It makes for a fun fireworks show but is ultimately misdirected, a lot of heat but little light. For a bit of background, Simon’s post first piqued my curiosity because of its title, Is there something better than Evidence Based Medicine out there? The other reason that it caught my attention was the extreme naiveté revealed in the arguments used. In fact, Simon’s naiveté reminds me very much of my very own naiveté about three years ago.

Here’s the point where I tell you a secret about the very creation of this blog. Shortly after Steve Novella invited me to join, the founding members of SBM engaged in several e-mail frank and free-wheeling exchanges about what the blog should be like, what topics we wanted to cover, and what our philosophy should be. One of these exchanges was about the very nature of SBM and how it is distinguished from EBM, the latter of which I viewed as the best way to practice medicine. During that exchange, I made arguments that, in retrospect, were eerily similar to the ones by Simon that I’m about to address right now. Oh, how epic these arguments were! In retrospect, I can but shake my head at my own extreme naiveté, which I now see mirrored in Simon’s criticism of SBM. Yes, I was converted, so to speak (if you’ll forgive the religious terminology), which is why I see in Simon’s article a lot of my former self, at least in terms of how I used to view evidence in medicine.

The main gist of Simon’s complaint comes right at the beginning of his article:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Corporate pharma ethics and you

Although I’m one of the few non-clinicians writing here at SBM, I think about clinical trials a great deal – especially this week.

First, our colleague, Dr. David Gorski, had a superb analysis and highly-commented post on The Atlantic story by David H. Freedman about the work of John Ioannadis – more accurately, on Freedman’s misinterpretation of Ioannadis’s work and Dr. Gorski’s comments. While too rich to distill to one line, Dr. Gorski’s post struck me in that we who study the scientific basis of medicine actually change our minds when new data become available. That is a GoodThing – I want my physician to guide my care based on the latest data that challenges or proves incorrect previously held assumptions. However, this concept is not well-appreciated in a society that speaks in absolutes (broadly, not just with regard to medicine), expecting benefits with no assumption of risk or sacrifice in reaping those benefits. Indeed, the fact that we change our minds, evolving and refining disease prevention and treatment approaches, is how science and medicine move forward.

Then, I had the opportunity to hear an excellent talk on pharmaceutical bioethics by Ross E. McKinney, Jr., MD, Director of the Trent Center for Humanities, Bioethics, and History of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. McKinney is a pediatrics infectious disease specialist who led and published landmark Phase I and Phase II trials zidovudine (AZT) for pediatric AIDS patients. While he continues working in this realm, McKinney also studies clinical research ethics, conflicts of interest, and informed consent. I was absolutely fascinated and refreshed by hearing from an expert who while describing and citing major ethical lapses in our system of drug development is also willing to propose solutions and do the hard thinking required for us to maximize the benefits we derive from pharmaceuticals while minimizing unethical behavior.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Lies, damned lies, and…science-based medicine?

I realize that in the question-and-answer session after my talk at the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium a week ago I suggested in response to a man named Leon Maliniak, who monopolized the first part of what was already a too-brief Q&A session by expounding on the supposed genius of Royal Rife, that I would be doing a post about the Rife Machine soon. And so I probably will; such a post is long overdue at this blog, and I’m surprised that no one’s done one after nearly three years. However, as I arrived back home in the Detroit area Tuesday evening, I was greeted by an article that, I believe, requires a timely response. (No, it wasn’t this article, although responding to it might be amusing even though it’s a rant against me based on a post that is two and a half years old.) Rather, this time around, the article is in the most recent issue of The Atlantic and on the surface appears to be yet another indictment of science-based medicine, this time in the form of a hagiography of Greek researcher John Ioannidis. The article, trumpeted by Tara Parker-Pope, comes under the heading of “Brave Thinkers” and is entitled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It is being promoted in news stories like this, where the story is spun as indicating that medical science is so flawed that even the cell-phone cancer data can’t be trusted:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Let me mention two things before I delve into the meat of the article. First, these days I’m not nearly as enamored of The Atlantic as I used to be. I was a long-time subscriber (at least 20 years) until last fall, when The Atlantic published an article so egregiously bad on the H1N1 vaccine that our very own Mark Crislip decided to annotate it in his own inimitable fashion. That article was so awful that I decided not to renew my subscription; it is to my shame that I didn’t find the time to write a letter to The Atlantic explaining why. Fortunately, this article isn’t as bad (it’s a mixed bag, actually, making some good points and then undermining some of them by overreaching), although it does lay on the praise for Ioannidis and the attacks on SBM a bit thick. Be that as it may, clearly The Atlantic has developed a penchant for “brave maverick doctors” and using them to cast doubt on science-based medicine. Second, I actually happen to love John Ioannidis’ work, so much so that I’ve written about it at least twice over the last three years, including The life cycle of translational research and Does popularity lead to unreliability in scientific research?, where I introduced the topic using Ioannidis’ work. Indeed, I find nothing at all threatening to me as an advocate of science-based medicine in Ioannidis’ two most famous papers, Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research and Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. The conclusions of these papers to me are akin to concluding that water is wet and everybody dies. It is, however, quite good that Ioannidis is there to spell out these difficulties with SBM, because he tries to keep us honest.
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The Guatemala syphilis experiment and medical ethics in science-based medicine

Several of the bloggers here at SBM have repeatedly criticized various clinical trials for so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” interventions for various conditions and diseases (or should I say dis-eases?) for being completely unethical. Examples include the misbegotten clinical trial for the Gonzalez protocol for pancreatic cancer, which — surprise, surprise! — ended up showing that patients undergoing Dr. Gonzalez’s combination of 150 supplements a day, dietary manipulations, and coffee enemas, actually did much worse than those undergoing standard of care, despite how depressingly poor the results of standard of care are; clinical trials of homeopathy in Honduras and other Third World countries, which both Wally Sampson and I lambasted; and ongoing clinical trial of chelation therapy for cardiovascular disease. I’ve also criticized the “autism biomed” movement, that amalgamation of parents who believe that vaccines cause autism and yet are willing to subject their children to all sorts of quackery to “cure” the “vaccine injury” of uncontrolled and unethical experimentation on autistic children. As valid as all these criticisms are, it is important to recognize that science-based medicine is not free of its own abuse of ethics.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the concept of clinical equipoise. Clinical equipoise is a critical concept in any clinical trial. Basically, a state of clinical equipoise exists when there is genuine scientific uncertainty over which of the options being tested in/on living, breathing human beings is better, and any clinical trial in which a state of clinical equipoise does not exist is at the very least ethically dodgy and probably downright unethical. For example, when the occasional anti-vaccine activist argues for a randomized controlled clinical trial comparing vaccinated children and unvaccinated children, it’s easy to shoot that idea down as unethical because there is no clinical equipoise. The children receiving placebo vaccines would be put at a much higher risk of suffering harm compared to the vaccinated children because they would be left unprotected against life-threatening diseases. In the realm of conventional medicine, the reason that few cancer clinical trials involve a placebo control group anymore but instead test a new therapy either against the standard of care or with the standard of care is because in many, if not nearly all, cases placebo use in a cancer patient is unethical when there exists effective therapy, even if the therapy is not all that effective. What all this boils down to is that science is only part of the basis of science-based medicine. Medical ethics must take precedence. After all, arguably the most efficacious way to test a new antibiotic would be to infect people with the bacteria the antibiotic treats and then divide these people up into a placebo control group and a group receiving the antibiotics to see how each group does. After all, this is the sort of thing that the Nazis and Japanese did during World War II, and the same sort of dehumanization and abuse of research subjects that every ethical precept regarding human subjects research that has been developed since then, such as the Helsinki Declaration of 1964, has been designed to prevent.

Unfortunately, medical scientists in the U.S. have not always lived up to these precepts. The most famous example is arguably the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which poor black men with syphilis were studied and the control group denied effective therapy for syphilis even after it was known that penicillin was an effective treatment for syphilis. This study spanned 40 years, from 1932 to 1972, and is justifiably held up as one of the worst examples of research misconduct in American history, if not the history of the world. The shock the revelation of this study to the American public in 1972, when it learned of men dying of syphilis, women contracting syphilis, and babies being born with congenital syphilis, all unnecessarily, led to Belmont Report and the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP).

It turns out that there was an even worse atrocity against medical science perpetrated by U.S. investigators in Guatemala over 60 years ago that only now has come to light in stories in the New York Times, MSNBC, and elsewhere. So bad was the offense that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have issued a formal apology to the Guatemalan government for the experiments in which Guatemalan prisoners were intentionally infected with syphilis and then treated with antibiotics, an apology that President Obama reiterated in a personal telephone call to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom on Friday.
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