French ministers face court in blood scandal


By Catherine Brown

The fountain in Place Saint Michel, outside the courtroom where four senior former health officials are on trial, ran blood red as a reminder by protesters of the 256 haemophiliacs who died after receiving AIDS-infected blood.

The scandal, involving government ministers and the French National Blood Transfusion Centre (CNTS), has outraged the public. Many have called for prison sentences for those responsible for allowing infected blood to be used for virtually all blood transfusions in France for over six months.

Edmund Herve, the former health minister, admitted knowing that contaminated blood was being distributed by the CNTS. Experts had supposedly reassured Herve that blood stocks could be used for a transitional period before blood disinfected by heat became available.

Herve's claims that the government "lost no time" in reacting to the crisis ring hollow, for the transitional period was extended from June to October 1985.

At least 1500 people have since become HIV-positive, including nearly 45% of haemophiliacs. It is estimated at least several thousands will become infected.

The four health officials currently in the dock are to be charged only with fraud and failure to come to assistance of people in danger, carrying a maximum of four years prison. Anger greeted the court's decision not to charge the four with manslaughter and wilful poisoning, especially when it was revealed that disinfection techniques were available, as were supplies of HIV-free blood from other countries. The question has been raised as to whether cost was a factor in the continued use of existing blood supplies.

Authorities have been accused of deliberately keeping out of France a US testing procedure so that France could develop its own system.

Legal proceedings began on July 27 against the three government ministers involved — Herve; Laurent Fabius, now first secretary of the Socialist Party; and Georgina Dufoix, social affairs minister in 1985, who stated she was "responsible but not guilty".

Ministers have to be impeached by both houses of parliament; they can not be brought to trial directly to face charges relating to the exercise of their job.

First examining magistrates determine if there is a case to be answered and, if so, pass it on to the public prosecutor. It then has to be forwarded to the justice minister to decide whether to pass the case to parliament.

This long and drawn-out procedure will be closely watched by the public. With the all-important referendum on the Maastricht Treaty on European unity only six weeks away, the government was hoping to avoid any controversy that might result in a protest "No" vote.

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