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Guatemalans sue over syphilis cases

Associated Press / March 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Guatemalans subjected to US syphilis experiments in the 1940s filed suit Monday against federal health officials seeking compensation for health problems they have suffered.

The lawsuit comes after revelations that US scientists studying the effects of penicillin in the 1940s deliberately infected about 700 Guatemalan prisoners, mentally disturbed patients, soldiers, and orphans. None was informed or gave consent.

The experiments ran from 1946 to 1948 and were funded by the National Institutes of Health. Their existence was hidden for decades, until Wellesley College medical historian Susan Reverby uncovered the records in 2009.

Attorneys representing the Guatemalans asked the Obama administration to set up an out-of-court claims process. But they said they got no response by a Friday deadline and so filed the suit.

The American researchers convinced officials at orphanages and prisons to cooperate by giving them supplies and medicines. Sometimes, individual subjects were paid with cigarettes and, in the case of prisoners, infected prostitutes were used to expose them to the disease, court documents show.

The attorneys said Guatemala was chosen for the experiments because it might be easier to escape ethical scrutiny there.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.