The Obama administration faces a deadline of early next year to respond to a sweeping new class-action lawsuit alleging that U.S. public health officials in the years after World War II deliberately infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers and psychiatric patients with venereal diseases without informing them of the infections — or treating most of them.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this month by Mateo Gudiel Pinto and seven other named plaintiffs, as well as an unknown number 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.
President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius “have all publicly apologized for the wrongs,” Terrence Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer LLP, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday. “The proper response in this case is for the Department of Justice to offer a concrete and just remedy as soon as possible.”
The lawsuit, filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia before U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, requires a response from the federal government and co-defendant, Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), by Jan. 9. The suit names Mrs. Sebelius and seven other public-health officials as defendants.
A Justice Department spokesman said Monday the agency could not comment on the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for PAHO said the organization was coordinating with federal officials on the matter.
According to a September fact-finding report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, at least 1,308 Guatemalans who were prisoners, soldiers or psychiatric patients were infected with a venereal disease, sometimes via paid sex workers, and sometimes by U.S. doctors who used their medical skills to transfer germs. Only 678 of the infected persons were found to have received any treatment for their syphilis, gonorrhea or chancroid, the report said.
Another group of people, including 1,384 children and 51 leprosy patients, underwent other kinds of testing. In all, the experiments involved at least 5,128 persons, the report said.
The lawsuit says none of these persons gave informed consent, and Guatemalan officials permitted access to vulnerable populations in exchange for money, supplies or other benefits.
The case is comparable to the infamous 40-year Tuskegee syphilis experiments, in which U.S. public health doctors deliberately didn’t treat syphilis infections in hundreds of poor black men so that they doctors observe how the disease progressed, said Piper Hendricks, an attorney for the plaintiffs at Parker Waichman LLP.
“Just like Tuskegee, there was no remedy [for the victims] until they filed a class-action” lawsuit, she said. “We’re following that pattern again, and hoping to have a positive response from the government sooner, rather than later.”