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U.S. sued over 1940s syphilis tests in Guatemala

March 10, 2011

Attorneys in the U.S. and Guatemala are seeking legal compensation for victims of experiments by U.S. doctors in Guatemala in the 1940s, which involved the deliberate infection of syphilis of some 700 people, according to Voice of America.

The existence of the experiments was revealed on Oct. 1, and that same day President Barack Obama contacted Alvaro Colom, his Guatemalan counterpart, to apologize for the experiments.

However, the U.S. has not yet established a fund to compensate the victims and their families. On Monday, lawyers representing the victims sued federal health officials.
 
A Washington, D.C. law firm sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week asking that a system be established to handle claims for people deliberately infected with syphilis in Guatemala.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October made a formal apology to the Guatemalan people. “The study is a sad reminder that adequate human subject safeguards did not exist a half-century ago,” she said in a statement. “Today, the regulations that govern U.S.-funded human medical research prohibit these kinds of appalling violations” (TT, Oct. 10, 2010).

The study was brought to light by a professor at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who uncovered documents detailing a 1940s U.S.-funded study of sexually transmitted diseases in which Guatemalan prisoners and mentally ill patients were intentionally infected with and then treated for syphilis.  The study, led by Dr. John Cutler, was funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health to the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau, now the Pan American Health Organization. Dr. Cutler was researching the use of penicillin to treat venereal diseases.

“This is a very easy case,” Piper Hendricks, one of the lawyers representing the victims, told Voice of America. “There has already been an acknowledgment of the wrong that took place.  We know that the U.S. government was involved.  We do not know all the parameters, we do not know all of the impacts, but the main wrong has already been acknowledged.”

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