Decisions taken by French officials over contaminated blood caused many deaths

 

IF Annie Durozoi's teenage son, Gilles, ever meets Brigid McCole's children, they may find they share the same outrage at their mothers' premature deaths. Annie Durozoi, whose husband had abandoned her with their baby boy, was a school teacher when she received HIV tainted blood in a transfusion after a car accident near Paris in 1984. Mrs McCole died in Dublin on October 2nd because she took a hepatitis C blood product administered by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board.

Mrs Durozoi was one of 1,300 French people infected with the HIV virus by blood transfusions in the 1980s. More than 400 have since died. Mrs Durozoi died in 1987 at the age of 30, leaving her four year old son to be raised by her twin sister, Sylvie.

After a legal battle, the Durozoi family received £217,000 from car insurance companies. "Had she lived longer, the court would have awarded greater damages," the Durozoi's lawyer, Mr Philippe Sarfati, says. "In their estimation, she didn't suffer very long." Compensation offered by a French Government fund has in most cases been judged insufficient by victims' families, and hundreds of cases are pending.

In France, blood was often collected from high risk prison inmates, but doctors only began to suspect blood stocks were contaminated in 1985. Eight more months passed before HIV testing became mandatory. The Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board was similarly slow to act when the anti D vaccine was found to be contaminated with hepatitis C in 1991. An estimated 1,600 Irish women were infected.

Three decisions taken by French officials in the mid 1980s led directly to AIDS deaths. Although tests which could have detected the contaminated blood were available from a US company, the French National Blood Transfusion Centre preferred to wait until a French test came on the market. Dr Michel Garretta, the director of the NBTC, decided to try to sell off existing tainted blood stocks before a government ban on the sale of non tested blood took effect. And French authorities decided it was too expensive to kill the virus by treating the contaminated blood at high temperatures.

The former Socialist government's handling of the affair remains one of the rawest issues in French politics, and is expected to resurface in the 1998 parliamentary elections. Are ministers responsible for decisions taken by underlings? And is responsibility the same thing as guilt? These questions, now being raised in Ireland's hepatitis C controversy, continue to dog all connected with the French AIDS cases.

The former Socialist prime minister, Mr Laurent Fabius, once the most promising politician of his generation, has seen his career blighted by the blood scandal. In 1994 he was indicted, along with two former cabinet ministers and his former chief of staff, on criminal charges of conspiracy to poison. In the unlikely event of convictions, they could face 30 years in prison.

The still unanswered question is whether these high ranking officials knew the blood board had decided to sell off lethal stocks but did nothing to stop it. "There may have been negligence at the highest levels," Mr Sarfati says, "but I don't believe for a minute that Laurent Fabius wanted to kill people."

Mr Fabius has often said the AIDS deaths haunt him. But for the scandal, he probably would have stood against Mr Jacques Chirac in the last French presidential election. "I feel innocent," Mr Fabius protested in his book, The Wounds of Truth. "I know I am innocent. I would like to be able to have confidence in justice. But the confusion in public opinion is so deep, the demand for expiation is so powerful."

Only Dr Garretta, his research chief, and two other lower ranking officials have been tried. Dr Garrett a received a four year sentence, of which he served only 30 months. Three months before he was freed in May 1995, the Judge refused Dr Garretta's first application for parole because of "the legitimate resentment of the victims". The charge on which Dr Garretta was convicted - fraudulent vending - reduced his crime to the level of a grocer selling spoiled food. Dr Garretta has since been charged with conspiracy to poison. His lawyers opposed the new indictment on the grounds it constituted double jeopardy, but lost their appeal.