Six health officials, charged for the death of 117 children infected with human variant mad cow disease while receiving growth hormone treatment in the 1980s, were cleared by a French court on wednesday.
Charged with "serious negligence," the six doctors and pharmacists were accused of causing the children's deaths by providing and injecting them with tainted hormones collected from the pituitary glands of human cadavers.
They were accused of ignoring safety rules by using corpses in neurological and geriatric wards specialised in infectious diseases, and therefore potentially infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).
Based on months of expert testimony, however, the court said it had not been established that the officials "were aware from 1980... of exposing patients treated with this medicine to the risk of infection with CJD."
Most now in their 70s and 80s, the defendants included Fernand Dray, former laboratory chief at the Pasteur Institute that purified the hormones, and Marc Mollet and Henri Cerceau of France's central hospital pharmacy which turned them into medicine form.
The others are former health ministry official Jacques Dangoumau, paediatrician Elisabeth Mugnier and doctor Micheline Gourmelen.
A key seventh defendant, Jean-Claude Job, the former head of the only association authorised to source and distribute the hormones, died in October aged 85, after asking the victims' families for forgiveness.
Of 1,698 children treated under the hormone programme, 117 have succumbed thus far to CJD, an invariably lethal brain disorder that can lie dormant for years, sometimes decades.
It is likely, experts say, that others will fall victim to the sickness in coming years.
The marathon trial opened in Feburary last year, 20 years after the first case was detected, with prosecutors representing 200 civil plaintiffs, including the victims' families and several associations.
The French government did not wait for the trial's outcome to pay out damages. The family of each CJD victim has received 225,000 euros (295,000 dollars), plus an additional amount varying case-by-case.
CJD is caused by naturally-occurring proteins called prions that, when deformed, become an infectious agent of destruction.
Once activated, the mutant prions eat away at brain matter. There is no known treatment.
The terrifying effects include radical personality changes and dementia, along with loss of balance, hand tremors and crippling leg pains. Death usually comes within months of the onset of symptoms.
In 1984, the international community was alerted to a possible link between human growth hormones and CJD by the death of a 21-year old American. The next year, the United States, Britain, and a dozen other countries banned hormones extracted from pituitary glands, using a new synthetic variant instead.
But France continued with the old method until 1988, without warning parents of a potential risk, tightening security and hygiene rules which, prosecutors say, were largely ignored.