Guatemalan syphilis victims lose hope in legal battle against US
Thousands of Guatemalans were intentionally infected with STDs in the 1940s by US public health researchers. An appeal on their case against the US government was dismissed this week.
As a nine-year-old child, Marta recalled seeing her name on a list to go to the doctor’s office. An orphan, she had been living in the National Education Center since the age of six.Skip to next paragraph
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Before long, she would be prodded and poked every week for a year, receiving shots in her hip and shoulder, and having blood drawn.
“My mother tells us that she would ask over and over again, 'why are you doing this if I am not even sick?'" says Luis Estuardo Vasquez Orellana, one of Marta Lidia Orellana Guerra’s five children. His mother, who is still alive today, also underwent unnecessary back surgery and was left to rest hanging upside down on and off in post-surgery recovery for months.
It was 1946, and Ms. Orellana was one of thousands of Guatemalans who were unwittingly subjected to secret human experiments led by US doctors.
The experiments were brought to light by a US researcher in 2009, and a legal battle on behalf of victims and their families ensued. But now, nearly three years after beginning the legal battle in US courts, attorneys representing an estimated 5,000 Guatemalan victims used as guinea pigs and infected with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s by US public health researchers withdrew their appeal earlier this week, virtually ending the case against the US government.
The dismissal comes a year after a US District Court ruled the United States was protected under two immunity laws, the Federal Tort Claims Act and the International Organization Immunities Act.
“We pulled out rather than prolong litigation,” says Christian Levesque, an attorney with DC-based Conrad & Scherer LLP who is working on the case. “At this time it is more appropriate to pursue political redress.” Pursuing justice for these victims in the US could include reparations through lobbying Congress.
The alleged victims include soldiers, inmates, sex workers, mental health patients, and schoolchildren. Of these, some 1,300 were deliberately infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Tuskegee in Guatemala
Dr. John Cutler, a junior scientist at the US Public Health Service, led the experiments in Guatemala from 1946 to 1948. Under a grant by the National Institute of Health, Dr. Cutler and US researchers gave antibiotic penicillin to test its ability to cure and prevent syphilis.
But, his team also infected test subjects without their consent.
Researchers would expose inmates to infected prostitutes brought into jails. At the time, prostitution was legal in the Central American country as was bringing sex workers into prisoners’ cells.
In other cases, they would first infect patients in mental hospitals before testing the effects of the medication. US lawyers say the American team studied and performed experiments on more than 5,000 subjects – including orphans as young as 6 years old. The team sought out vulnerable populations and convinced Guatemalan officials in prisons and orphanages to cooperate by giving them supplies and hard-to-find medications for malaria and epilepsy. Only a small percentage received treatment post-infection.
Archived records of medical notes taken by the American team describe how subjects had scrapes made on their genitals, arms, or faces to directly infect them.