Swiss Red Cross Hit By Tainted Blood Scandal
May. 22, 1994
GENEVA (AP) _ The Swiss Red Cross, one of the country's most revered institutions, is embroiled in a scandal over its use of blood supplies contaminated with the virus that causes AIDS.
Earlier this month, a Geneva prosecutor filed grievous bodily harm charges against Alfred Haessig, the 73-year-old former director of the Red Cross central laboratory, for letting infected blood products be used even after testing procedures were available in the mid-1980s.
Charges against other health officials may follow as lawyers for hemophiliacs and their families seek redress.
The Health Ministry estimates that between 80 and 90 people in Switzerland were infected by blood products tainted with the Human Immunodeficieny Virus. Many have died.
The government is considering an overhaul of the country's transfusion service following a report earlier this year that the system was too fragmented and uncoordinated.
The report by a group of experts said although the risk of contracting the AIDS virus through contaminated blood was now negligible, the spread of other - as yet unknown - infections could not be ruled out.
Above all, the ''Blood and AIDS'' report was highly critical of the Swiss Red Cross. Without naming names, it accused officials at the Red Cross central laboratory of violating medical and ethical standards by distributing untested blood products until spring 1986.
''Those responsible had a good idea in late summer 1985 how serious the AIDS disease was,'' it stated.
''In all probability, the number of HIV infections in Switzerland in 1985 could have been reduced if all blood transfusion centers had introduced obligatory screening earlier.''
Mandatory screening started in Switzerland May 1, 1986.
In developed countries, the vast majority of AIDS infections through tainted blood products occurred before 1986. Heat treatment to kill the virus in products like plasma and detection methods for HIV were still in their infancy.
In the United States, for instance, an estimated half of the country's 20,000 hemophiliacs were infected before screening started in 1985. There were similar tragedies in Canada, Japan and European countries.
In France, four senior health officials were convicted in 1992 of knowingly allowing hemophiliacs to receive tainted blood clotting Factor 8 products in 1985. The ensuing outcry helped bring down the Socialist government one year ago.
In Germany, the disclosure last year that a plasma company had continued to distribute tainted products set off a national panic.
So far in Switzerland, the scandal has been contained, but demands for more compensation could grow.
Jacques Barillon, a Geneva lawyer who represents some of the victims, says national and cantonal (state) health officials should be held responsible, in addition to Haessig.
The Paul Livai Initiative, a self-help group for transfusion victims in Bern, has called for criminal proceedings. Bern authorities are considering the request.
No date has been set for Haessig's court case. Haessig retired from the Red Cross in 1986 after 30 years as director of the laboratory.