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Panel Investigating Guatemalan Syphilis Experiments Calls for Compensation of Medical Research Victims

Aug 31, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

The panel investigating the unethical Guatemalen syphilis experiments conducted by U.S-funded researchers in the 1940s has called on the U.S. government devise a system of compensation for people injured as a result of medical research. It seems the U.S. is one of the few nations without such a system.

"The panel felt strongly that it was wrong and a mistake that the United States was an outlier in not specifying any system for compensation for research subjects other than, 'You get a lawyer and sue,'" Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and chair of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, said, according to The Washington Post.

Gutmann made the remarks on Monday, the first of a two-day hearing convened to discuss key findings of the panel's investigation of the Guatemalan syphilis experiments. Those experiments, which were conducted by doctors from the U.S. Public Health Services between 1946 and 1948, involved the intentional infection of hundreds, possibly upwards of 1,500, soldiers, prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with gonorrhea and syphilis without their knowledge or permission. The experiments, which were conducted to determine whether taking penicillin after exposure could prevent sexually transmitted diseases, were led by John C. Cutler, who also helped coordinate "Tuskegee Experiment."

The Guatemalan experiments came to light last October, prompting an apology from President Obama. In March, a group of victims filed suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other government agencies seeking reparations for human rights abuses. Attorneys representing the Guatemalan syphilis experiment victims, including Parker Waichman LLP, had asked the Obama Administration to set up a claims process for reparations, but the federal government failed to respond to their request.

On Monday, Gutmann announced that the panel had concluded that U.S. Scientists must have known the Guatemalan experiments were unethical.

"The people who were in the know, did want to keep it secret because if it would become more widely known, it would become the subject of public criticism," she said, according to Reuters.

According to the panel, its probe had revealed that the same scientists had obtained consent first before conducting earlier, similar experiments on inmates in Terre Haute, Ind., and hid what they were doing in Guatemala. In Guatemala, doctors tried to infect some subjects by giving them prostitutes who were carrying the diseases or were infected by the researchers. The researchers also scraped sensitive parts of subjects' anatomy to expose wounds to disease-causing bacteria, poured infectious pus into subjects' eyes, and injected some victims' spines, The Washington Post said.

According to the Post, the panel determined that about 700 of the Guatemalan subjects were treated for the diseases they obtained, but it remains unclear whether their care was adequate. Another 83 died, but it is not clear if the research caused their deaths.

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