December 07, 1992 12:00 PM

STEPHANE GAUDIN, 15, HAS TWO PASSIONS in life: airplanes and computers. Bright and lively, with an easy smile, the French high school student dreams of going around the world someday in a biplane. But that is unlikely to happen. Stéphane has AIDS, the same disease that killed his 11-year-old brother, Laurent, earlier this year. Both brothers were born hemophiliacs, and both contracted the deadly virus from infected blood products they received at a government-supported transfusion center. “I remember right before [Laurent] went away, I asked him to stay,” Stéphane told a French newspaper. “He said, ‘No, it hurts too much.’ ”

Unfortunately, Stéphane’s plight is one he shares with hundreds of hemophiliacs. During the early 1980s, before the risks were understood, hemophiliacs in many countries were unwittingly infected with untested, HIV-positive blood. In France, however, in a scandal that has shocked the nation, several health officials now admit they continued to distribute large quantities of HIV-contaminated blood products from March to October of 1985—after they knew the blood was tainted. Even more shocking was their refusal to purchase readily available safe blood products that had been heat-treated against the AIDS virus. No one knows how many hemophiliacs were infected (nearly a third of the country’s 4,000 hemophiliacs became HIV-positive during all of the 1980s). “It’s criminal,” Stéphane said. “If my parents had known, they would have searched the whole world for safe products for me and my brother.”

Much of the public outrage has been directed at Dr. Michel Garretta, 48, the man newspapers quickly dubbed Monsieur Sang (“Mr. Blood”). As director-general of the state-supported National Blood Transfusion Center in Paris, he was responsible for about 40 percent of the country’s blood supplies. Among other things, the center produced blood concentrates, a medical advance that makes hemophilia as treatable as diabetes. (Widely used in the U.S. since the early 1970s, concentrates are highly susceptible to HIV contamination because they contain clotting agents extracted from the blood of thousands of donors.) “Garretta had great capacities for work and organization,” said hematologist Jean-Pierre Soulier, Garretta’s predecessor at the transfusion center. “He was esteemed by everyone.”

No doubt he was. But by the late 1980s, several groups of hemophiliacs began trying to find out who was behind the distribution of HIV-tainted concentrates. They soon focused on the high-profile Garretta, and by 1988 he was receiving kidnap threats. The following year his car was set on fire. Police found an anonymous note nearby denouncing “the criminal dealer in red gold” who distributed “medicine knowing perfectly it would infect and condemn innocent children to death.”

It was not until 1991 that critics found a smoking gun: Confidential minutes of a May 1985 meeting at the National Blood Transfusion Center—published in the magazine L’Evénetnent du Jeudi—showed clearly that Garretta and others were aware their blood products were contaminated. Garretta promptly resigned and was indicted, along with his research chief, for misrepresenting the quality of blood products. It was a relatively minor charge, says French attorney Sabine Paugam—one comparable to “peddling bad mustard.”

The seven-week trial last summer became a European media event. Insisting “I did not take any decision alone,” Garretta testified that he distributed tainted blood concentrates because he couldn’t get his superiors in the government to import expensive products that had been heat-treated against HIV. “I should have imported heated blood in large quantities,” he admitted to the court. “I didn’t know how to say ‘Never mind!’ to the experts, the Minister of Health. I looked for a compromise. I made a mistake.” He also claimed that, at the time, he thought the virus was only 10 percent fatal. Besides, he told an interviewer, tainted blood products were given only to those who already were HIV-positive. The practice stopped in October 1985 when France perfected its own purification methods.

Garretta was convicted in absentia this fall and sentenced to the maximum punishment allowed: four years in prison. At the time, he had been working as a temporary consultant for a Massachusetts blood-processing equipment firm and was living in a Boston suburb with his wife, Anne-Marie, 48, and their adopted Koreanborn daughter, Julie, 19. (Their two sons are currently in college in France.) Garretta voluntarily returned to Paris to begin his sentence, still insisting he was being made a scapegoat. “I chose to be a doctor because I hate illness and death,” he told an interviewer. “I have always fought against them. I am a witch the prosecutors want to burn.”

He may have a point. His National Blood Transfusion Center is only one of seven in France that produced blood concentrates. No official in the other centers has been indicted, nor have any senior members of President Francois Mitterrand’s government, which supervised the country’s blood-transfusion network. That, however, may be changing. On Nov. 9, Mitterrand gave his blessing to a special parliamentary court that would consider charges against former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius and two cabinet ministers who were in office at the time.

Garretta himself may also be in for more trouble. The prosecutor has decided to appeal his case, an action that could throw Garretta’s fate to a higher court and lead to a harsher sentence. But even the stiffest of sentences for Garretta and others won’t ease the suffering of AIDS-infected hemophiliacs. “A gunshot hurts,” explained Stéphane Gaudin’s father, Patrice, contemplating the tortures his own family has had to endure. “It’s terrible. But it’s over right away.”


CATHY NOLAN in Paris and S. AVERY BROWN in Boston

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