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US seeks to dismiss lawsuit over unethical VD research in Guatemala

Posted on behalf of Matthew Walter.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a federal judge on 9 January to dismiss a lawsuit from hundreds of Guatemalans seeking compensation for their participation in a US-led experiment in the 1940s in which they were infected with venereal diseases (see A shocking discovery).

The DOJ called the experiments unethical and said they had caused “a terrible wrong”. But the motion submitted by the department maintained that the United States has immunity against this kind of lawsuit. “This lawsuit is not the proper vehicle — and this Court is not the proper forum — through which the consequences of this shameful conduct may be resolved,” said the justice department in its motion.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an apology in 2010 after a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts discovered the experiments. A US government commission found last year that American and Guatemalan scientists, led by John Cutler with funding from the US National Institutes of Health, exposed 1,308 people in Guatemala to venereal diseases including syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid without their consent. The subjects included prisoners, prostitutes, mental patients and soldiers, and researchers also used young orphans to conduct diagnostic testing (see US bioethics panel urges stronger protections for human subjects).

Rudy Zuniga, a Guatemalan attorney representing the alleged victims, said that the US request to dismiss the case today was expected, and that his team will continue to press for payment. US law firms Conrad & Scherer and Parker Waichman Alonso are representing the plaintiffs.

“I expect there to be compensation for these people,” Zuniga said in an interview. “These people were inoculated without consent. There are families here who are still suffering consequences from these infections.”

Although the Guatemalan government sanctioned the experiments, which were administered with close cooperation from Guatemalan public-health authorities, Zuniga said that it was unlikely that his clients would ever receive compensation from the Central American country.

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom’s administration formed its own bioethics commission and published an independent report on Cutler’s research in December. The report largely mirrors the findings of the US commission, and offers details on which Guatemalan laws were violated, along with some historical context to help explain how the experiment was conceived and implemented.

Guatemalan Vice-president Rafael Espada, a medical doctor who studied at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, was in charge of the Guatemalan ethics commission. Colom’s term ends on 14 January, and it isn’t clear whether the incoming administration will give the issue as much attention, Zuniga said.

“The commission here said it was going to compensate, but these gentlemen in the government are about to finish their term, and the head of the next government hasn’t heard us yet,” Zuniga said.

A handful of survivors and their family members, many of which claim to have suffered from diseases contracted congenitally, are seeking damages from the US government. Most of the plaintiffs live in extreme poverty.

The US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues also published a report in 2011 on international research, and recommended that the US implement a system to compensate test subjects for related injuries. The report offered different examples of existing systems that could serve as a model, including the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which covers people injured by certain vaccines.

In addition, the commission suggested that researchers increase efforts to recognize other cultural standards and practices, that funders of human-subject testing support ethics training, and that governments consider requiring that more research be registered to increase transparency.

The goals of the Guatemala research included the discovery of improved methods for diagnosing venereal diseases through blood tests, and testing a prophylaxis to prevent syphilis that would reduce infection in the armed forces. Cutler, who had previously been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in Alabama, never published the results of the syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid studies in Guatemala.

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