Brain disease risk to children 'should have been realised'

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THE Department of Health denies that its procedures for making a growth hormone for children are to blame for nine of them subsequently dying from a rare and incurable brain condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

Yesterday it declined to respond to written questions following the disclosure in the Independent yesterday that some of the pituitary glands sent for processing into the hormone were removed by mortuary workers from corpses infected with CJD.

Meanwhile Rosalind Ridley, a neuro-scientist for the Medical Research Council and an expert on CJD, said that the department should have realised that the hormone could pass on the disease long before the treatment programme was withdrawn.

Dr Ridley said that medical research during the late 1960s and 1970s should have prompted the department to review safety of the hormone. The therapy was stopped in 1985 after three teenagers who had taken it died in the United States from CJD. The first British death - a young woman - occurred shortly afterwards. Eight others have since died, the latest last month.

'A case could very possibly be made that there was a lot of information arising before 1985 and the Department of Health should have worked out the risk,' Dr Ridley said. 'As time went by we got more information. People should have been able to say, 'Well, hang on a minute.' '

Dr Ridley said the pituitary is part of the brain and research clearly established the possibility that CJD could be transmitted by brain tissue as early as 1968. 'Anybody could have put two and two together and arguably they should have done,' she said. Further evidence of the possibility of transmission via brain tissue emerged in the early and mid-1970s.

The department did not, however, review the procedures for collection of the organs until 1981, when a set of guidelines was produced. Several workers in mortuaries around the South-east say they were not told of those guidelines.

Dr Peter Adlard, of the Institute of Child Health, who was involved in administering the hormone programme, said that the department 'will have to look at the question of compensation more urgently if I am able to say that pituitaries with CJD got in (to the hormone) and I can say there were no guidelines. That would be very influential.'

Nearly 2,000 young people who took the hormone to promote their growth when they were children are now at risk of contracting CJD. Fifty families have been awarded legal aid to sue the department for negligence, which it denies.

Letters, page 17