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Tainted Blood Scandal: Anger and AIDS for French Hemophiliacs

November 27, 1991

PARIS (AP) _ Jorge Garro, infected with the AIDS virus by a blood transfusion six years ago, feels hatred and craves justice as a scandal unfolds that he likens to genocide.

Garro, 33, is one of thousands who were twice cursed: hemophiliacs, accident victims or others needing transfusions, they received blood products that doctors knew were probably tainted with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

About 1,200 French hemophiliacs - nearly half the total - now have the virus. At least 210 have died of AIDS.

″At first, I thought being seropositive was fate, like getting the can of preserves that gives you botulism,″ Garro said. ″When I finally began to understand what was happening, I really began to hate ... They have committed genocide on hemophiliacs. There is no other word for it.″

It may be France’s biggest public health scandal, mixing blood, money, death and - for hemophiliacs like Garro, whose doctors are their lifelines - a deep sense of betrayal.

A continuing investigation which led to the indictment of Garro’s doctor and others could reach high into the government.

Suspicion had long abounded that contaminated blood products were used in transfusions.

But a government-ordered report released in September stunned France by revealing the extent to which officials knowingly continued the practice.

The report suggests economic considerations were a factor in delaying the testing and in undertaking mass importation of heated blood products until a French system was in place.

It showed how authorities in 1985 disregarded near-certain knowledge that blood was a major carrier of the AIDS virus. They failed to institute systematic testing for the disease with an American test available by March 1985. They also neglected to take measures to deactivate the virus by heating blood products - a technique used in the United States and West Germany by 1983.

Systematic testing of blood donors for the HIV virus went into effect in France only on Aug. 1, 1985, after a French test was put on the market.

A public hospital official, Dr. Francois Pinot, issued an advisory letter as early as January 1985, saying the danger of transmitting the human immunodeficiency virus - HIV - through blood ″is a certainty.″

At a meeting May 29, 1985, at the National Center for Blood Transfusions, then-director general Dr. Michel Garretta, now among four medical officials charged, concluded ″all our lots (of blood) are contaminated.″

Despite that knowledge, a June 26, 1985, internal note at the center advised that distribution of non-heated blood products would remain ″normal procedure″ as long as the stock existed, according to the report.

Heated products became obligatory on Oct. 1, 1985.

The government has agreed under pressure to grant indemnities to victims for a sum that could total $2.2 billion or more. On Wednesday, it drew up a bill, the first formal step toward providing the funds, which could start to become available as early as January.

Social Affairs Minister Jean-Louis Bianco said in announcing the indemnity plan Oct. 30: ″The nation has a duty of solidarity and reparation toward these people, even if nothing, no sum of money or material aid, can compensate for this drama.″

Garro and about two dozen other victims filed lawsuits for poisoning, distribution of toxic products or negligence to ensure the criminal case is pursued.

″My life is in an armchair, watching TV, reading the paper, going upstairs to sleep and watching TV again. For the past two years, it has been that,″ Garro said at his home in the middle-class suburb of Les Mureaux, 21 miles west of Paris.

He has a wife, 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, but he lives in limbo, not knowing how long he will live or whether he has AIDS. He requires lifelong transfusions.

Doctors say the frequent high fevers, constant fatigue, ganglia under the arms, blood in the urine, and psoriasis, including open sores, that covers his body do not constitute AIDS, Garro said.

When Garro learned he had HIV in September 1985, his doctor told him only a small percentage of people carrying the virus contract the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Garro, who quit his job with the social security agency in 1989, now knows AIDS is a virtual certainty for most HIV carriers.

His doctor, Jean-Pierre Allain, former research director at the National Center for Blood Transfusions, was charged early this month with failing to warn patients of their risk of contamination.

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