/ 7 February 2008

French doctors on trial for Creutzfeldt-Jakob deaths

Seven doctors and pharmacists went on trial on Wednesday over the deaths of more than 100 people from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) that occurred years after the victims were treated, while still children, with tainted human-growth hormones.

The long-awaited trial concerning one of France’s biggest public health scandals opened as 200 relatives of the victims packed a Paris courtroom to hear health officials face charges that included manslaughter and deception.

Up to the late 1980s, children in France who had stunted growth were treated with hormones collected from the pituitary glands of human corpses. Britain, the United States and a dozen other countries banned these hormones in 1985 following the death of a 21-year-old American that suggested a possible link to the debilitating and fatal brain disease CJD. A synthetic equivalent was used instead.

France, however, continued with the old method until 1988. Security and hygiene rules were tightened for the procedures, but prosecutors argue that those requirements were largely ignored.

In 1992, after the death of a 15-year-old from CJD in France, dozens of other families decided to sue. French investigators raised questions about shoddy preparation and collection methods, noting that untrained workers had extracted the growth hormones.

The doctors and administrators, most now in their 70s and 80s, are accused of ignoring warning signs, and obscuring the dangers of CJD infection.

Of 1 698 children treated in the 1980s, 110 have succumbed to the rare disease, which attacks the brain, causing rapid dementia and death. Hundreds of others live in fear of the disease that often lies dormant for many years.

One victim, Bernadette, who received weekly growth-hormone injections in her early teens, was struck at 18 by sudden anxiety attacks and garbled speech interspersed with bouts of flu-like symptoms. At 20, her balance, speech and sight faltered and she could not control her body. ”It was as if she was possessed,” her mother told Le Monde.

Baffled doctors suggested Bernadette had ”hysteria” and that the family needed therapy. She was interned in a psychiatric ward and her parents were denied access. On the ward, she met a patient who had also been given growth hormones as a child and they compared symptoms. In 1993, Bernadette died of CJD aged 21.

Jeanne Goerrian, president of a victims’ association, said as she arrived at court this week: ”It is as if our children were here watching us.”

During an investigation, the French scientist Luc Montagnier, who had identified HIV, said that in 1980 he had warned colleagues at the Pasteur Institute that the hormone they were extracting from pituitary glands could carry CJD. He advised special care when buying glands to produce the treatment.

Investigators found evidence that France-Hypophyse, an association that had a monopoly over the collection and distribution of pituitary glands from corpses across France and Eastern Europe, often worked in unhygienic conditions.

The Pasteur Institute’s radio-immunology unit, which extracted the hormones from the glands, is also accused of sloppiness in handling, transporting and stocking the material.

An official 1992 inquiry found that the team at the unit bought glands from theatre orderlies throughout the 1980s for meagre sums of 35 to 50 francs. Half of the 120 000 organs acquired between 1983 and 1988 came from corpses in Bulgaria and Hungary. Many appear to have been procured from neurological or infectious wards, the report said.

Defence lawyers say their clients are innocent and acted in good faith, armed with the medical knowledge of their time. If convicted, six of the defendants could face up to four years in prison. A pharmacology professor, also charged with corruption, faces 10 years. — guardian.co.uk Â