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Monday, June 10, 2024 | Back issues
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Guatemalans Blame Johns Hopkins for STD Experiments

BALTIMORE (CN) - Johns Hopkins University intentionally infected Guatemalan orphans, soldiers and inmates with sexually transmitted diseases, 774 people claim, seeking $1 billion for the "crime against humanity."

Johns Hopkins researchers chose Guatemala as the site for its penicillin-based human experiments in the 1940s and 1950s because U.S. relations with the country were amicable and the militaries of both counties could "ensure secrecy and access to vulnerable, captive populations ... many drawn for socio-economically disadvantaged indigenous groups," the April 1 complaint states.

The Estate of Arturo Giron Alvarez is the lead plaintiff in the suit, filed in Baltimore City Court, which also names Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Rockefeller Foundation as defendants.

Because researchers in previous studies had difficulty transmitting diseases in laboratory settings, and because prostitution was legal in Guatemala at the time of the study, the human experiments involved infecting prostitutes with syphilis, gonorrhea and other diseases during the sex workers' regular inspections at clinics, according to the complaint. The Guatemalans say study subjects then acquired the disease by having intercourse with these workers, none of whom were told about the nature of the experiments.

"Nothing was done to prevent them from passing the diseases on to their spouses, children and other descendants," the complaint states. "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."

A Presidential Commission of the Study of Bioethical Issues, convened by President Barack Obama, concluded in 2011 that "the experiments involved gross violations of ethics as judged against both the standard of today and researchers' own understanding of applicable contemporaneous practices."

Johns Hopkins denied liability in a statement on its website.

"This was not a Johns Hopkins study," it said. "Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala. No nonprofit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the U.S. government."

Though the Guatemalans note that the school established itself as a leader in STD research, buttressed by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the federal government, Johns Hopkins says the studies were solely the responsibility of the U.S. government.

Paul Beckman with Salsbury, Clements, Bekman, Marder & Adkins represents the Guatemalans.

The lawsuit comes two years after a federal judge in Washington closed the book on similar claims against nine government officials.

As in that case, the Guatemalan plaintiffs suing Johns Hopkins note that black men already infected with syphilis in Tuskegee, Ala., were the first victims of the sickening human experiments. Researchers then unsuccessfully tried to infect prisoners at a Terre Haute, Ind., federal penitentiary with gonorrhea.

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