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Mad cow deaths, officials cleared

Prosecution to appeal over case in which 117 children died from CJD after receiving infected growth hormones.

PROSECUTORS are to appeal after a court cleared six health officials over the deaths of 117 children who became infected with human variant mad cow disease while receiving growth hormones in the 1980s.

In France’s biggest-ever public health court case six doctors and pharmacists were charged with serious negligence, accused of providing and injecting the children with tainted hormones.

They were accused of ignoring safety rules by taking the glands from corpses from wards specialised in infectious diseases, 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 were aware of exposing patients treated with this medicine to the risk of infection with CJD.

Most of the defendants are now in their 70s and 80s. They include the former laboratory chief at the Pasteur Institute that purified the hormones, Fernand Dray and Marc Mollet and Henri Cerceau of the central hospital pharmacy which turned them into medicines. The others are former health ministry official Jacques Dangoumau, paediatrician Elisabeth Mugnier and doctor Micheline Gourmelen.

The prosecution has decide to appeal against the acquittals of Mr Dray, Mr Mollet and Ms Mugnier, who were accused of “homicide, deliberate injury and serious deception.”

A key seventh defendant, Jean-Claude Job, the former head of the only association authorised to source and distribute the hormones, died in October 2008 aged 85. He had asked the victims’ families for forgiveness.

Of 1,698 children treated under the hormone programme, 117 died from CJD, a lethal brain disorder that can lie dormant for years. It is likely, experts say, that others will fall victim to the sickness in coming years.

The trial opened in February last year, 20 years after the first case was detected, with prosecutors representing 200 civil plaintiffs, including the victims' families and several associations.

The government did not wait for the trial's outcome to pay out damages. The family of each CJD victim has received €225,000 plus an additional amount varying case-by-case.

The symptoms of CJD include radical personality changes and dementia, along with loss of balance, hand tremors and crippling leg pains. Death usually comes within months of the onset of their onset.

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, the United States, Britain, and a dozen other countries banned hormones extracted from pituitary glands, using a new synthetic variant instead. However France continued with the old method until 1988.

Marcel and Gerald Lasserre, father and brother of David (picture) who died at 19 in 1991.
AFP/Martin Bureau

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