PARIS (AFP) – First one of his sons died, then another and another. By 1996, Khalid al-Jabor had lost five children to AIDS, all victims of contaminated blood allegedly exported to Iraq by a French firm now owned by drug giant Sanofi.
Decades later, the 58-year-old is still desperately trying to get justice for his shattered family and more than 270 Iraqi families which suffered similar tragedies in the 1980s and 1990s — but to no avail.
“I believe that human rights, freedom and democracy are imaginary principles, they don’t really exist,” the tall, dapper, retired town hall employee said bitterly on a trip to Paris, in another attempt to seek compensation.
The story emerged in the early 1980s, when AIDS had just been discovered and the mere mention of the deadly epidemic sent shivers down global leaders’ spines.
At the time, five of Jabor’s sons were haemophiliacs, a disorder in which a patient’s blood does not clot properly, forcing them to have regular transfusions to replace the missing clotting protein.
All were given transfusions in Baghdad using blood products that authorities say they bought from the Merieux Institute, which became part of Sanofi in 2004 when the drug giant acquired Aventis.
With the realisation as early as 1982 that many haemophiliacs were catching the HIV virus that causes AIDS, concerns emerged worldwide about the safety of blood supplies and scientists suspected non-heated products could be dangerous.
But Alain Bernal, spokesman for Sanofi Pasteur — the group’s vaccine division that used to be Merieux — said there were concerns that heating blood would damage the factor VIII protein inside that helps clotting and is life-saving for haemophiliacs.
It wasn’t until February 1985 that The Lancet medical journal published proof that heating blood did not harm the protein.
But Merieux only stopped exporting non-heated batches to Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and others in November that year.
Chairman Alain Merieux himself acknowledged the delay in an interview with AFP in 1992 when the scandal erupted, saying the firm had spent those months developing an adequate heating technique.
“In hindsight, I think we reacted too slowly but in no way were there any doubts among employees over the safety of the products,” he said.
This all happened around the same time as non-heated blood distributed by France’s national transfusion centre infected hundreds of people with HIV, later sparking a huge political scandal.
For Jabor and his wife though, the tragedy was relentless.
In 1983, four-year-old Ali died of what at the time was a mysterious illness.
Then in 1986, eight-year-old Walid died after developing the same symptoms. Several months later, so did Bashar, seven.
Walid and Bashar had been diagnosed with AIDS, which by then was well-known and feared the world over, and they were quarantined in a Baghdad hospital until their death.
Both died alone. “They were not allowed to see anyone and I didn’t even have access to my sons,” Jabor said.
At the time of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the health ministry informed the security services of the names of each AIDS patient and Jabor feared they would take his two other affected sons away.
“Police threatened us, saying that if we didn’t give them the children, they would write on our house walls that our family had AIDS patients,” he said.
Jabor initially hid his son Haidar, but his health worsened and he was forced to take him to hospital where he died in 1989, aged six. As for Mohamed, he died in 1996 and Jabor and his wife were left with just two children.
According to Geraldine Chavrier, the lawyer for the Iraqi families who has followed the story for a decade, dozens of cases have been launched from several countries over the years, to no avail.
She said all procedures were faced “with the same difficulty” — lack of evidence that victims were transfused with blood from Merieux.
“In countries where this happened, there are no medical records, no sanitary traceability,” she said.
Bernal told AFP that Sanofi was ready to negotiate if those bringing the case “can demonstrate that the person suffered from haemophilia, did not have AIDS before (transfusions) and had AIDS after.”
“We don’t ask them to demonstrate that it was a product from the Merieux Institute that was used.”
As such, negotiations have taken place but he declined to detail them for confidentiality reasons, although he said a deal had been reached with Greek victims.
Chavrier pointed out that Sanofi had inherited the problem in 2004.
“They are making an effort by not demanding proof that is impossible to get, but they are asking for a certain number of documents that are legitimate.”
Sanofi has agreed to re-open negotiations with Chavrier on behalf of Jabor and other Iraqi families.
And whatever the outcome, Jabor himself has vowed to fight “until his last breath”.