Seven Guatemalans filed a class action lawsuit in Washington over a 1940s US study in which hundreds of people in the Central American nation were deliberately infected with syphilis and gonorrhea without their consent.
The lawsuit by the Guatemalans, filed against the US Department of Health and Human Services, involves “medical experimentation that took place in Guatemala from ... 1946 to 1948 and lasted potentially several decades more at the hands of American and Guatemalan doctors,” read a copy of the lawsuit.
The suit also names “US government officials who continued to operate the program once it was established.”
The Guatemalan study, which was never published, came to light last year after Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby stumbled upon archived documents outlining the experiment led by controversial US doctor John Cutler.
The study “involved at least 700 tests subjects and thousands of others were impacted” by the defendant’s “non-consensual human medical experimentation,” the class-action complaint read.
US President Barack Obama personally apologized to Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in October when the case first surfaced, and then ordered a thorough review of what happened.
The case, filed in US federal court, cites the Tuskegee Experiment in Alabama, in which hundreds of African-American men with late-stage syphilis were observed but given no treatment between 1932 and 1972. Cutler was also involved in that study and those victims were compensated.
In Guatemala, Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled 1,500 people, including mental patients, for the study, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
Initially, the researchers infected female Guatemalan commercial sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis and then allowed them to have unprotected sex with soldiers or prison inmates.
The head of a bioethics commission that Obama convened to look into the case said the Guatemala research was “clearly terribly wrong,” and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as “clearly unethical.”
The plaintiffs are seeking “compensatory and punitive damages ... in an amount to be determined at trial.”
The case is being handled by two US attorney firms, Florida-based Conrad & Scherer and New York-based Parker Waichman Alonso.