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Medical officials cleared over mad cow deaths

Latest update : 2009-01-15

A French court cleared six health officials charged with the deaths of 117 people infected while receiving tainted growth hormone treatment as children in the 1980s. The prosecution plans to appeal the verdict for three of the six defendants.

AFP- A French court Wednesday cleared six health officials over the deaths of 117 people who developed the human form of mad cow disease as children after receiving contaminated growth hormones.

   
Charged with "serious negligence," the six doctors, administrators and pharmacists were accused of providing and injecting the children with tainted hormones taken from the pituitary glands of human cadavers in the 1980s.
   
Parents blamed them for a string of safety lapses, in particular in using corpses in neurological and geriatric wards specialised in contagious disease, and therefore potentially infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
   
Based on months of expert testimony, however, the court said it had not established that the officials involved "were aware from 1980... of exposing patients treated with this medicine to the risk of infection with CJD."
   
Families of the victims reacted with anger and astonishment to the Parisian court's verdict, which fell far short of the suspended prison terms sought by the prosecution against three of the defendants.
   
"For our children who died, for our dead husbands and wives, we cannot let this go unpunished," said Jeanne Goerrian, head of the French Association of Growth Hormone Victims, AVHC.
   
The Paris prosecutor will appeal the verdict for three of the six defendants -- Fernand Dray, 86, former laboratory chief at the Pasteur Institute that purified the hormones; Marc Mollet, 84, of France's central hospital pharmacy which turned them into medicine form, and paediatrician Elisabeth Mugnier, 59. All had been charged with homicide, causing bodily harm and deception.
   
A lawyer representing civil plaintiffs in the case, Bernard Fau, had earlier said he would petition Justice Minister Rachida Dati to force an appeal.
   
"Given all the mistakes that came to light in the trial, I think it will be very hard for victims and the public to understand this decision," he said.
   
Mollet's manager Henri Cerceau, 71, former health ministry official Jacques Dangoumau, 73, and doctor Micheline Gourmelen, 72, were also in the dock.
   
A key seventh defendant, Jean-Claude Job, who ran the association licensed to source and distribute the hormones, died in October aged 85, after asking the victims' families for forgiveness.
   
While acquitting them of criminal charges, the court ruled that Mugnier and Dray had a "civil liability" in the case, which paves the way for families who have not received state compensation to seek damages from them.
   
Of 1,698 children treated under the hormone programme, 117 have succumbed thus far to CJD, an invariably lethal degenerative brain disorder that can lie dormant for years, sometimes decades.
   
Its terrifying effects include radical personality changes and dementia, along with loss of balance, hand tremors and crippling leg pains.
   
The latest victim, now a grown man with children, died on Christmas Day, according to the victims' group.
   
French authorities did not wait for the trial to pay out damages, with each victim's family awarded a minimum of 225,000 euros (295,000 dollars).
   
The marathon trial opened in February last year, 20 years after the first case was detected.
   
In 1984, the international community was alerted to a possible link between human growth hormones and CJD by the death of a 21-year old American.
   
The next year, Britain, the United States and a dozen other countries banned hormones extracted from pituitary glands, using a new synthetic variant instead.
   
But France continued with the old method until 1988, without warning parents of a potential risk. Officials tightened security and hygiene rules but, prosecutors said, these were largely ignored.
   
The growth hormone case bears uncomfortable parallels to the AIDS-tainted blood scandal that shocked France in the late-1980s and early 1990s, in which top officials knowingly gave contaminated blood to haemophiliac patients.
   
More than 4,000 became HIV-positive, and many died.

Date created : 2009-01-14

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