Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Iraq sues US pharmaceutical giants for past HIV-contaminated blood

by Assad AbboudMon Mar 26, 10:31 PM ET

Iraqi AIDS patients plan to sue French and US pharmaceutical giants for millions of dollars compensation after being infected by HIV-contaminated blood shipments in a massive 1980s health scandal.

Of 238 Iraqis infected with the AIDS virus involved in this scandal,199 have died. These AIDS cases in Iraq are the result of blood imported from France for transfusions in the 1980s by the Saddam regime. The French companies that supplied the blood have offered to compensate the victims' families with the paltry amount of $5,000 to $25,000 per person. The Iraqi health ministry has rejected the offer.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society says the blood was bought by the Saddam Hussein regime from Austria and France to treat child haemophiliacs with a hereditary bleeding disease.

Another 39 infected patients are fast facing the same fate in a country where AIDS represents the ultimate social stigma, and patients have neither the means nor the opportunity to purchase adequate, up-to-date medication.

Now the IRCS is demanding 238 million dollars in damages from French company Sanofi-Aventis, which acquired firm Merieux after it sold contaminated blood-clotting agents to the Iraqi health ministry, and US-based Baxter International, in which Austrian outfit Immuno AG has since been incorporated.

"We are now asking for 238 million dollars, i.e. one million dollars for each victim," for loss of life and the nightmares they endured, said IRCS head Said Ismail Haqi. A Baghdad court is to begin looking into the case on April 8.

Haqi said the Iraqis rejected an out-of-court settlement offer from Sanofi-Aventis of between only 5,000 to 25,000 dollars per patient, an amount he slammed as "humiliating."

"This is not enough for treatment. Only 5,000? Is this what a patient is worth because he is Iraqi?" Haqi said.

In 1996, four drug companies, including Baxter, agreed to pay 640 million dollars to up to 6,000 American haemophiliacs who contracted AIDS through their blood products before HIV was scientifically identified as a virus.

When contacted by AFP in Paris, Sanofi-Aventis declined to comment while a spokesman for Baxter was unable to confirm that the company had received a copy of the complaint and was therefore not in a position to comment.

"Two to three people die every year for lack of medicine. Entire families were doomed because a member was suffering from AIDS. Families of the victims have been living in tragic conditions for a quarter of a century," Haqi said.

As children began to fall ill in the mid-1980s, the Iraqi government ordered the victims into brutal hospital isolation, ignorantly believing that HIV was a virus that could spread like tuberculosis.

Hanan Abdul Karim, a doctor in her mid-30s, still weeps at the memory of her brother Diaa, who died aged 16 after being separated from his family for eight years in a hospital room which even nurses were too frightened to enter.

"My brother was eight when the government took him from school into the Tuwaitha hospital," just south of Baghdad, some distance from the family home in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala.

"It was practically a detention camp. He used to get his food handed through the window," she said. So great is the stigma of AIDS, that no one ever married her or her five sisters.

The family was allowed to see but never approach Diaa once a month for eight years. Even in death, they were barred from saying their final goodbye.

"They put his body in a steel box and wouldn't let us open it. They warned us not to talk about it. Just imagine what it means for a child to suffer from AIDS in Iraq," she said.

By 1986, the IRCS says 186 Iraqi children were infected with HIV, some of whom later infected husbands and wives through sex after marriage.

"One died a few months ago after his wife died too. They were unaware they were patients and some married unknowing they had the symptoms," Haqi said.

He says the victims and their families have been betrayed. In 2000, the Saddam regime filed a politically motivated suit for 30 million dollars against Merieux just to keep them quiet but it never had a hope.

The then and current Iraqi health ministries flatly deny any outbreak of AIDS in the country. Only the IRCS is brave enough to take the case.

Khalid Ali Jaber, who lost five haemophiliac sons to AIDS between 1986 and 1996, refused to talk about his experiences.

"I signed an undertaking not to talk about the reason of the disease. I had to move house four times so people wouldn't find out."

"The majority of Iraqis are ignorant about this disease. People refused to eat during the wakes I held for my sons believing that AIDS could be transferred through the mouth," he added.


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