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Guatemalans Seek US Compensation for Syphilis Infections

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (File Photo)

Attorneys in Washington and Guatemala are seeking legal compensation for victims of experiments by U.S. doctors in Guatemala in the 1940s that involved the deliberate infection of around 700 people with syphilis. U.S. officials have already denounced the experiments and apologized to the victims, but they have not yet established a way to compensate the victims and their families.

A Washington, D.C. law firm sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder this week asking that some system be established to handle claims for people deliberately infected with syphilis in Guatemala more than half a century ago. One of the attorneys involved in preparing the case, Piper Hendricks, says there is a deadline for Holder to respond.

“Right now, what we have done is send a letter to Attorney General Holder asking for a response from the U.S. government," said Hendricks. "If there is no response by Friday we will be filing the complaint on Monday.”

Last October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a public apology for the syphilis experiments carried out in Guatemala under the U.S. National Institutes of Health from 1946 to 1948, calling the actions by U.S. doctors “reprehensible.” President Barack Obama also apologized to Guatemala for what had happened and appointed a bioethics panel to investigate international medical studies.

But the United States has not taken steps to compensate the people who were deliberately infected with the debilitating disease. Piper Hendricks says failure of the Obama administration to act before the deadline Friday will result in a legal battle that could be costly and difficult for both the government and the plaintiffs.

“This is a very easy case," said Hendricks. "There has already been an acknowledgement 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.”

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, back, help Herman Shaw, 94, a Tuskegee Syphilis Study victim, during a news conference May 16, 1997, when Clinton apologized to black men whose syphilis went untreated by government doctors.
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, back, help Herman Shaw, 94, a Tuskegee Syphilis Study victim, during a news conference May 16, 1997, when Clinton apologized to black men whose syphilis went untreated by government doctors.
Hendricks says the experiments in Guatemala were carried out by a medical team that included Dr. John Cutler, who had also been involved in similar tests in Tuskegee, Alabama where 600 black men who had syphilis were studied without being treated. She says the doctors took the experiment to Guatemala to escape ethical scrutiny in a country where medical oversight was considered lax.

In some cases, they used infected prostitutes to transmit the disease to unsuspecting prisoners. In other cases, they gained cooperation by providing medicine and even household appliances to people who took part. But they never informed the participants that they would be infected with syphilis and never asked their consent. The doctors even infected orphans as young as six-years old in order to study the progress of the disease over time.

But after all these years it might be difficult to sort out those who have a legitimate claim for compensation from those who might be fraudulently seeking to benefit. Piper Hendricks says good record keeping from decades ago might help.

“Dr. Cutler's wife kept track of all of the subjects that were involved, so it could potentially be easier to determine who has a valid claim or not," she said. "But, I think, in addition to setting up a system for the claims, I think addressing some of the needs of these communities that have been impacted would also be a very positive step.”

In Guatemala City, attorney Rudy Zuniga represents about 300 people who are part of a lawsuit he will be taking before the courts there next week. In a VOA telephone interview, he spoke of the culpability of the Guatemalan government that was in power at the time.

He says the Guatemalan government is going to be sued for having permitted these things to be done to its own citizens. He says not only were soldiers and prisoners infected, but patients in mental hospitals who had gone there to seek help, only to be infected intentionally with a terrible disease.

Zuniga says his clients include a few men who are now in their 80s who were infected and suffered the results, but he also represents children and grandchildren of victims, some of whom were born blind or suffered other ailments that can be linked directly to the syphilis infections.

He says whole communities of people in the north of Guatemala have suffered the ill effects of a disease that was brought to their families by a sordid experiment conducted long ago by men who had taken an oath to help people and, above all else, to do no harm.