The hidden harvest of death

Government blamed in the High Court for lingering misery of growth hormone children
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The Independent Online
It was a grisly enough activity anyway, the business of turning to corpses - nearly a million were "harvested" - to extract growth hormone for injection into children of short stature.

But 16 young adults are now dead because the treatment they received was contaminated with a dose - always fatal - of CJD. A synthetic alternative was quickly found once the alarm bells, belatedly, had penetrated a Department of Health that was trying to ignore a looming crisis. But a macabre trade, only abandoned after the first death in 1985, had already unleashed tragedy.

In a damning judgment yesterday, Mr Justice Morland ruled that the department was to blame for the 16 horrific deaths so far - and for who knows how many more in the future. The department ought to have known, before 1 July 1977, that the treatment carried the risk of transmitting the killer disease, and it was negligent in failing to suspend the treatment programme for most new patients, he said.

Almost 2,000 children at risk of dwarfism, and in some cases hypoglycemia, were treated with hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of 960,000 corpses, between 1959 and 1985, when the human growth hormone programme was abruptly terminated.

Spelling out the bizarre details in the High Court in London, the judge said the job of "harvesting" the pituitaries fell originally on mortuary attendants - who were paid 20p a gland as an important addition to their low wages. Alongside that undoubted incentive, they were never given any guidance about which glands to reject.

In an astonishing passage in the judgment, the judge said that evidence had been submitted that glands from Alzheimer's disease or dementia victims were not excluded. Parents were never advised of the risks.

Noel Baldwin, from Gainsborough, Lincs, whose son, Patrick, died at 30, said: "I feel bitter towards the system that allowed this to happen."

The 16, including the children of eight families involved in yesterday's test case, died between the ages of 20 to 34 after the lengthy incubation periods customarily associated with the disease. Certain death - slow, progressively disabling and humiliating - is faced by three more former patients who have already contracted the degenerative brain disorder. Nearly 1,900 others live with the ticking time bomb of the possibility that they could be next.

A further 200 claims for psychological harm are planned by some of these so-called "worried well", who fear they will get the killer disease.

Paul Andrews, 30, from Bromley, Kent, who was treated between October 1977 and 1983 but has not, so far, become ill, said the threat of CJD had left him demotivated, afraid of things others considered normal, such as getting married and having children. The judgment was a "justification of the years we've spend trying to get word out of the Government. Their silence has only magnified our fears," he said.

Women treated with pituitary-derived hormones to combat infertility in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were awaiting the ruling yesterday.

The outcome of the case was tinged with disappointment, because Mr Justice Morland ruled that only the deaths of people treated after 1 July 1977 were caused by negligence. Parents of children suffering from hypoglycemia will also be excluded from making legal claims. It is not yet clear how many claims in the future will be affected by the cut-off date.

David Body, of the solicitors Irwin Mitchell, which brought the case - unconnected with the strain of CJD which triggered the beef crisis - said: "Everybody should receive compensation; pre-1977 families should not be treated differently."

Levels of compensation - which could eventually run into millions, depending on how many cases emerge - are expected to be settled soon, with awards within two months.

The judge ruled that important evidence of the risk of CJD was met with "lethargy" and a "lack of urgency" by the department. As warnings from the medical world increased, the department decided that the "risk of contamination was too awful to contemplate, or at least should not be the subject of public knowledge or discussion."

A spokesman for the Department of Health, which had already admitted the causal link said: "We will study the findings and consider what response is appropriate."

Family's anguish, page 8