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Guatemala could compensate US syphilis experiment victims

December 14, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala is considering compensation for the family of three people who were victims of a 1940s U.S.-led medical experiment in which hundreds were infected with syphilis, Vice President Alfonso Fuentes said Monday.

“They have been heard, and what they are asking for is some form of damages,” Fuentes told reporters, adding that the government is studying the option of providing “financial and moral” reparation.

The family’s relatives were part of a 1946-1948 experiment conducted by U.S. health officials in which 1,300 people in Guatemala — prisoners, prostitutes, soldiers and mental patients — were deliberately exposed to or contaminated with venereal diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea. At least 83 of those involved in the experiment died, according to a U.S. presidential commission. The aim was to see what effects antibiotics would have.

The fact the subjects were never informed of what was being done to them prompted U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 to apologize for what he termed a “crime against humanity.”

Obama vowed to promote ways to remedy the wrong, but made no concrete offer of compensation.

The unethical experiment was revealed by Dr. Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the U.S. She came across the work while researching notes left by John Charles Cutler, a public health services sexual disease specialist who headed up the experiment, following his death in 2003.

Cutler was also involved in another infamous U.S. medical experiment that for half a century up to 1972 studied the progression of untreated syphilis in poor U.S. black residents in Alabama.

Last April, a $1 billion lawsuit was filed in the U.S. on behalf of 774 plaintiffs against Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation for the Guatemala experiments, CNN reported. A similar 2012 class-action lawsuit was dismissed.

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