Patrick Semansky / AP

Johns Hopkins sued over STD study in Guatemala

More than 770 plaintiffs are seeking $1 billion in damages in connection with US program in Guatemala

More than 770 plaintiffs are suing the Johns Hopkins Hospital System Corp. over its role in a series of medical experiments in Guatemala in the 1940s and 1950s during which people were deliberately infected with venereal diseases without their consent.

The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court seeks $1 billion in damages for individuals, spouses and children of people infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases through a U.S. government program between 1945 and 1956.

The suit claims officials at Johns Hopkins had "substantial influence" over the studies by controlling some panels that advised the federal government on how to spend research dollars. The suit also alleges that Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation, which is also named as a defendant, "did not limit their involvement to design, planning, funding and authorization of the Experiments; instead, they exercised control over, supervised, supported, encouraged, participated in and directed the course of the Experiments."

The suit, which includes 774 plaintiffs, says the experiments were conducted abroad in order to give "researchers the opportunity to test additional methods of infecting humans with venereal disease easily hidden from public scrutiny."

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, researchers initially infected Guatemalan sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, then allowed them to have sex with soldiers and prison inmates with the aim of spreading the disease.

The suit says that orphans, children and mental patients were also deliberately infected without their consent, and that treatment was withheld from some people who had been deliberately infected.

Revelations of these experiments came to light in 2010. President Barack Obama apologized for the research, as did then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

"The people involved were icons at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Rockefeller Foundation," said Paul Bekman, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "They knew about it, they were architects of it, they planned it, they sought funding for it, they kept it under the radar. Hopkins provided syphilitic rabbits that were used to inject individuals with syphilis."

In a written statement, Hopkins called the experiments "deplorable."

But Robert Mathias, the lead counsel for Johns Hopkins, said the lawsuit is "baseless."

"It was not a Johns Hopkins study. Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for or direct this study. It was a federal government study," Mathias said. "Everyone who knows anything knows that when doctors and scientists are acting on those committees they are acting on behalf of the federal government and not on the behalf of the research university or hospital they came from."

In a written statement, the Rockefeller Foundation called the research "morally repugnant," and said it agrees that the U.S. government owes reparations to victims and their families. However, it says the foundation "did not design, fund, or manage any of these experiments, and had absolutely no knowledge of them," and will oppose the lawsuit.

Pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb is also a defendant in the case.

A spokeswoman for Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment on Wednesday. 

It's the latest in a series of lawsuits over the studies.

A federal judge in 2012 dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. government involving the same study after determining that the U.S. government can't be held liable for actions outside the United States. 

The Associated Press 

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