At ReelAbilities, a film explores medical ethics

From the New York Times:

A film festival dedicated to stories about people with disabilities kicks off this week in New York City. The event, called “ReelAbilities,” is mostly a celebration of people with different abilities, but one troubling new film explores a particularly dark chapter of medical history.

The award-winning short film, “Willowbrook,” to be screened Friday at New York University Langone Medical Center, examines an unthinkable medical experiment: researchers injected active hepatitis virus into healthy children with mental disabilities.

The story of Willowbrook began in 1947, when New York State converted a hospital into a residential facility that was supposed to house 4,000 children. By the mid-1960s, however, the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, contained more than 6,000 children.  The situation was abominable, with children lining the corridors, many unclothed and lying in their own excrement. It is little wonder that then-Senator Robert F. Kennedy called Willowbrook a “snake pit” after a 1965 tour.  An exposé of the brutal conditions by a young television reporter named Geraldo Rivera in 1972 led to government inquiries and the eventual closing of the institution — but not for another 15 years.

Less well known is the story of the research conducted at Willowbrook in the 1950s and 1960s by a team led by Dr. Saul Krugman, an eminent pediatrician and researcher at the New York University School of Medicine (the same institution, to its credit, where the film is being shown). Reasoning that hepatitis was rampant at Willowbrook anyway, Dr. Krugman devised a study in which newly admitted children were injected with active hepatitis virus.  Following these children over time, he hoped, would not only provide knowledge about the different viruses that caused hepatitis but also potentially lead to the discovery of preventive vaccines.

Read the complete story here.

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