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‘What we said, we can prove,’ said Paul D. Bekman of Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins LLC in Baltimore, the plaintiffs’ local counsel. (File photo)

Guatemalans infected with STDs file $1B lawsuit against Hopkins, others

More than 700 Guatemalans unknowingly infected with sexually transmitted diseases more than 60 years ago as part of U.S. government experiments filed a $1 billion lawsuit against researchers Wednesday.

The lawsuit alleges that not only were the plaintiffs kept in the dark about the nature of the experiments, which were designed to test the effectiveness of penicillin in treating STDs, but “nothing was done to prevent them from passing the diseases to their spouses, children and other descendants.”

“As a result, many Guatemalans have suffered and died, and will continue to suffer and die, from the venereal diseases with which they were intentionally infected,” states the complaint, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

The United States formally apologized for the experiments in 2010, and a presidential commission the following year recommended the government develop a way to compensate people harmed in medical research.

The experiments were not disclosed until 2009, when they were discovered by a college professor investigating the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment; the lawsuit alleges representatives from the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation organized both studies.

Representatives from both institutions, while expressing sympathy for the test subjects and their families, said Wednesday they did not fund, direct or manage the Guatemala study and note the presidential commission placed responsibility for the study on the government, not private institutions.

“Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. government’s Guatemala study and its legacy,” said Kim Hoppe, a Hopkins spokeswoman, in an emailed statement. “This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”

Both Hoppe and a Rockefeller spokesman pointed to a class-action lawsuit against federal officials stemming from the Guatemala study that was dismissed in 2012, with the judge suggesting the plaintiffs pursue reparations instead.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said all of the allegations in the lawsuit are backed up by documentation. The complaint states, for example, that a Hopkins doctor requested exposing test subjects to rabbit syphilis, work that was was included in the Rockefeller Foundation’s annual report in 1946.

“What we said, we can prove,” said Paul D. Bekman of Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins LLC in Baltimore, the plaintiffs’ local counsel.

Bekman added the plaintiffs had been discussing a settlement with Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation prior to commencing litigation.

The Guatemala experiments were the single-largest project funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1946 and 1947, according to the lawsuit. Testing subjects included prison inmates, psychiatric patients, soldiers and orphans, “many drawn from socio-economically disadvantaged indigenous groups” who did not speak Spanish, according to the lawsuit.

Prostitutes also were infected with venereal diseases and then provided to test subjects for intentional transmission, according to the lawsuit; Guatemala was chosen in part for the study because prostitution was legal.

Researchers offered a “variety of false explanations” about their testing, including that the test subjects were being treated for “non-existent conditions or for their own good,” the complaint states.

Plaintiffs in the case include original test subjects as well as their spouses and descendants. They are seeking compensatory damages for lack of consent, wrongful death, battery and fraud, among other counts, as well as $1 billion in damages.

The plaintiffs also are represented by lawyers in Maine and Caracas, Venezuela.

The lawsuit also names as a defendant Bristol-Meyers Squibb, which allegedly supplied the penicillin used in the experiments. Representatives from the company did respond to a request for comment.

The case is the Estate of Arturo Giron Alvarez, et al., v. The Johns Hopkins University, et al.