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Guatemala Research Victims Sue U.S. Government

Nov 15, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

Last week, a group of plaintiffs filed suit against the U.S. government in a bid to obtain compensation for allowing government-paid scientists to intentionally infect Guatemalan citizens with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s.    According to The Washington Times, the lawsuit seeks to represent unknown numbers of other Guatemalans who have yet to be identified but were injured by the experiments, which ran from 1946 to 1948, and possibly to 1953.

The Guatemalan experiments came to light last October, prompting an apology from President Obama. Those experiments were conducted by doctors from the U.S. Public Health Services between 1946 and 1948. The research, the aim of which was to determine whether taking penicillin after exposure could prevent sexually transmitted diseases, was led by John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate "Tuskegee Experiment."  Dr. Cutler detailed the Guatemalan experiments in papers that were discovered last year in the University of Pittsburgh archives by a Wellesley College researcher.

Of 5,500 Guatemalan prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers, commercial sex workers, orphans and school children involved in the research, researchers deliberately exposed about 1,300 inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers and commercial sex workers to sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid. At least 83 Guatemalan subjects died, although the exact relationship between the experimental procedures and the subject deaths remains unclear.  Consent was never obtained from any of the research subjects, and in some instances, the illnesses with which they were infected were not treated.

 A presidential commission has concluded that Dr. Cutler and his team must have been fully aware of the ethical implications of their Guatemalan studies.  They pointed out that the same researchers had conducted similar experiments that involved intentionally exposing prison inmates to gonorrhea in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1943.  The scientists did take proper steps to obtain consent from those subjects.

The U.S. government must respond to the lawsuit by January 9, but so far, has not commented on the complaint.

"Just like Tuskegee, there was no remedy [for the victims] until they filed a class-action" lawsuit, attorney Piper Hendricks, of the law firm Parker Waichman LLP, told the Times. "We're following that pattern again, and hoping to have a positive response from the government sooner, rather than later."

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