French health officials face trial for mad-cow disease deaths
Officials charged with involuntary homicide in the death of more than 100 children infected with a human variant of mad-cow disease will stand trial Wednesday
PARIS, February 5, 2008 - French health officials charged with involuntary
homicide in the death of more than 100 children infected with a human variant
of mad-cow disease will stand trial Wednesday, 16 years after the first victim
of their alleged negligence died.
The seven doctors and administrators are accused of ignoring warning signs,
and obscuring the dangers of administering growth hormones -- collected from
the pituitary glands of human cadavers -- potentially infected with the
Fernand Dray, the former head of the laboratory at the Pasteur Institute
that purified the hormones, is also charged with accepting bribes from
exporters of the glands, and illegally selling by-products.
Dray, 85, faces 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros (220,000
Also in the dock will be 85-year old Jean-Claude Job, ex-president of the
only association authorized to source and distribute the hormones.
Prosecutors say he ignored safety rules by gathering pituitary glands from
bodies in neurological and geriatric wards, as well as a hospital --
Claude-Benard -- specialised in infectious diseases.
Job and the other co-defendants, mostly in their 70s and 80s, could serve
three to four years behind bars, and pay fines ranging from 35,000 to 45,000
euros (52,000 to 67,000 dollars).
All seven have pleaded innocent.
Of 1,698 children treated during the 1980s, 110 have succumbed thus far to
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an invariably lethal brain disorder that can
lay dormant for years, sometimes decades.
It is likely, experts say, that others will fall victim to the sickness in
CJD is caused by naturally occurring proteins called prions that, when
deformed, become an infectious agent of destruction.
Once activated, the mutant prions eat away at brain matter. There is no
The terrifying effects 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 symptoms.
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.
But France continued with the old method until 1988, tightening security
and hygiene rules which, prosecutors say, were largely ignored.
Nor were parents warned of a potential risk.
"It is a trial of the all-powerful who think they know everything and who
never question themselves," said Jeanne Goerrian, president of an association
representing the families of victims.
The growth hormone case bears uncomfortable parallels to the AIDS
tainted-blood scandal that shocked France -- and the world -- in the
late-1980s and early 1990s.
In 1992, two top officials at the national blood transfusion centre were
sentenced to four years in prison for knowingly distributed blood -- some of
it from inmates -- potentially contaminated with the HIV virus to haemophiliac
patients. More than 4,000 became HIV-positive, and many died.
The officials and the centre were ordered to pay 1.58 million dollars in
This time, the French government has not waited to pay out damages. The
family of each CJD victim has received 225,000 euros (330,000 dollars), plus
an additional amount varying case-by-case.
Plaintiffs may ask for more money, but the families "first want to see
justice done," said Goerrian.
The trial is expected to last four months, and will be heard before a panel
of expert judges. Prosecutors are representing 200 civil plaintiffs, including
the victims' families and several associations.
At least 20 experts are expected to testify, including Stanley Prusiner,
who received the Nobel Prize in medicine for in 1997 for discovering the
pathogen that caused the family of degenerative brain diseases -- called
transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) -- of which CJD is one
Other forms affect domestic animals, especially sheep and cows. In the
1990s, an outbreak of a new kind of TSE in humans was traced back to the
consumption of cattle that had ingested bovine brain matter.
More than 200 people around the world have died from the new variant,
called vCJD, half of them in Britain, the epicentre in the 1980s and 1990s of
bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), as mad cow disease is called.