A JUDGE ruled yesterday that the Government was to blame for the deaths of a number of people who contracted the human form of "mad cow" disease after being treated as children with a growth hormone.
Mr Justice Morland said in a test ruling that anybody who began treatment from July 1977 and developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease could claim damages for negligence against the Department of Health, which took over responsibility from the Medical Research Council for the formerly experimental programme from that date. The Government will inevitably have to pay damages to a number of bereaved families.
Most of the plaintiffs began their treatment before 1977 some as long ago as 1959 and so have lost their claims for negligence. But Stephen Dorrell, the Health Secretary, will be urged to compensate all the victims and their relatives, including those whose treatment began earlier.
There is uncertainty about the position of the "worried well", who fear they will develop the illness and suffer a death the judge described as terrible to the victim and ghastly and utterly distressing for his family.
The Medical Research Council had been warned as early as 1976 that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease could be contaminating batches of hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of corpses. It was not until three patients receiving similar treatment died in America in 1985 that the therapy was halted.
Sixteen people have already died from the incurable disease; three others are dying, and 1,900 are living with the knowledge that they could be infected. The judge said at the High Court that, had doctors been made aware from 1977 of the risks, they would not have put new children on to the treatment, although they would have probably let existing patients continue. "It is to be hoped that no more cases will occur, but realistically that is an optimistic hope," he said.
David Body, solicitor for the plaintiffs, said: "The Department of Health, in the name of humanity, should make ex-gratia payments to all the families and individuals, whenever their treatment began." An early-day motion will be tabled in the Commons on Monday demanding compensation for all.
Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, which helps the affected families, described as iniquitous the payment by ministers of millions of pounds in compensation for cattle with BSE while they resisted any payments to families of CJD victims.
Ashraf Khan, whose son Bahram, a graduate engineer, died aged 27 last year, said: "When they knew the bells were ringing, why didn't they stop it? They should never have played with innocent young lives. They should have at least told the parents that these were experiments."
Paul Andrews, 30, of Bromley, Kent, is one of the "worried well", who are seeking compensation for the psychological anguish of knowing they could be struck down by the incurable brain disease. He was expected to grow naturally to 5ft but reached 5ft 5in after receiving injections between the ages of 11 and 17. "At the end of the day we were short and that was that. What is the difference between 5ft and 5ft 5in when you are alive? I could be dead this time next year and there is quite a high chance of that."
The judge, who heard 25 days of evidence, said many would be disappointed by his conclusions but that he must not be guilty of hindsight or let sympathy affect his judgment.
After being alerted to the CJD risk in 1976 by Alan Dickinson, an eminent veterinary research scientist in Edinburgh, the Medical Research Council did not ask the advice of two expert professors until a year later. Within a week, they said that they were in the uncomfortable position of "not knowing how bad the worst is. Any clinician who uses growth hormone must be made aware of the gruesome possibilities."
But instead of telling doctors who were recommending young people for this treatment, information was kept to the chosen few, the judge said. "The clinicians were kept in the dark," he said. "An unwise philosophy pervaded within the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council that the risk of slow virus contamination of human growth hormone was too awful to contemplate."
In ruling that only cases of CJD among people treated after July 1977 were caused by the negligence of the Department of Health, he absolved the council of any blame during the period before then.
LONDON - Relatives of children who died from the human equivalent of mad cow disease after being treated with human growth hormone won a court case Friday for conpensation from the British government
A London court ruled that the government's Department of Health had been negligent, but only in cases arising from treatment after July 1, 1977, when the risk of catching Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease should have become clear.
David Body, a solicitor representing families of those killed by CJD after being treated with human growth hormone (HGH), said it was not yet clear how many people would be entitled to compensation under the judge's ruling.
"Our view is that everybody should receive compensation and that it would be inconsistent for the pre-1977 families to be treated differently," he told reporters outside the court.
At a later news conference, Body said a motion would be tabled in the parliament next week aiming at securing an ex-gratia payment to the pre-1977 families. "There is a great deal of support in all the opposition parties for it," he said.
Eight families whose children caught CJD after treatment with growth hormones and later died brought an action against the health department and the Medical Research Council (MRC), a government body. A further four plaintiffs were added toward the end of the trial, two of whom have died of CJD and two who now have the invariably fatal neurological disease.
The treatment, for children with growth abnormalities, involved hormones taken from the pituitary glands of human corpses. It started in 1959 and came to an end in 1985 when the first linked deaths from CJD were reported in the United States.
The health department and MRC conceded that CJD had been transmitted by the growth hormone, but fought the six-year legal battle on grounds it was not known at the time of the program that there was a risk of transmitting the disease.
Noel Baldwin, father of Patrick Baldwin who died of CJD aged 30 after treatment with HGH between the ages of 14 and 17, said there had been no real winners in the court battle. "Justice can never be done for Patrick because Patrick died as a result of the program," he said. "I don't feel bitter toward the people involved, but I feel bitter at the system that allowed this to happen."
There are another 200 cases pending from participants in the GH program on behalf of those who have not developed CJD but have suffered psychiatric injury because they fear they might. The case has no connection with the new strain of CJD, which triggered the mad cow scare and beef crisis in Europe.