Attorneys for seven Guatemalan nationals are suing top U.S. public health officials, accusing them of “intentionally” infecting the Guatemalans or their family members with syphilis in a 1940s “Tuskegee-style” experiment.
The class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, seeks undetermined sums for the plaintiffs’ suffering and health costs.
Although only seven people signed on as plaintiffs, there are potentially hundreds more who could be added to the suit, said Piper Hendricks, an attorney with Conrad & Scherer, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla, which filed the suit with Parker Waichman LLP of New York.
The law firms sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on March 7 informing him of their intent to prosecute claims against U.S. officials “for atrocities committed by our government in exposing citizens to diseases as part of an unlawful, unethical and tragic regimen of human experimentation.”
An estimated 700 Guatemalan nationals were used in a 1946-1948 experiment to test the efficacy of penicillin as a treatment and a preventative agent. As part of the experiment, though, it is contended that the orphans, prisoners, mental health patients and former soldiers were infected with syphilis without their knowledge or consent.
Unlike the scandalous 1932-1972 studies in Tuskegee, Ala., in which poor black men with syphilis were studied but not treated, the Guatemalans were “intentionally infected” by the U.S. medical teams, the lawyers said.
“It is unknown when these experiments ceased and whether the medical team provided any cure to those they infected,” they said.
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney general’s office, said they had not seen the lawsuit yet.
“Once we do review it, we will make a determination about how we will respond,” he said.
The lawsuit names several U.S. officials as defendants, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Dr. Howard Koh, HHS assistant secretary of health; Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin; Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control; and Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Mirta Roses Periago, director of the Pan-American Health Organization (formerly the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau) was also named as a defendant.
The plaintiffs include Manuel Gudiel Garcia; Federico Ramos Mesa; Marta Cesarea Perez Ruiz; Victor Manuel Tecu Florian, and three heirs of Celso Ramirez Reyes.
The Guatemalan scandal was first reported last fall by Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College. She was researching the Tuskegee scandal and discovered evidence of the syphilis experiment in Guatemala in the files of a doctor who was part of the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS).
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mrs. Sebelius reacted to the news in a joint statement, saying, “Although these events occurred more than 64 years ago, we are outraged that such reprehensible research could have occurred under the guise of public health … We deeply regret that it happened, and we apologize to all the individuals who were affected by such abhorrent research practices.”
Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom called the experiments “a crime against humanity.” The Guatemalan government at the time cooperated with the study, but was not briefed on all its details, according to news reports from last fall.
A Partner of Parker Waichman LLP and Terrence Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer asked the Obama administration to address the Guatemalans’ grievances with an out-of-court claims process similar to those established in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. But when they got no response by a March 11 deadline, they proceeded with their lawsuit.
Ms. Hendricks said she expected more people to come forward from Guatemala once news of the lawsuit spreads.
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