Parents of Hemophiliac Who Died of AIDS-Related Causes Sue Doctors, Say They Did Not Have Warning of HIV Risk
A Massachusetts couple whose hemophiliac son died of AIDS-related causes in 1996 has sued two of the doctors who treated him, alleging that the doctors did not adequately warn them of the risk of contracting HIV through tainted blood products and did not "aggressively" treat their son after he tested positive for HIV, the Boston Globe reports. Wilfred Demers was three years old and already receiving blood clotting factor when the CDC in July 1982 reported that three hemophiliacs had contracted Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a rare disease that began appearing in gay men in the early 1980s. The CDC said that the finding suggested the "possible transmission of an agent through blood products" and six months later warned that "children with hemophilia must now be considered at risk" for what had been termed AIDS. The New England Journal of Medicine also warned in January 1983 that hemophiliacs were at risk for the disease, but the National Hemophilia Foundation recommended that doctors continue prescribing blood clotting factor to hemophiliacs over age four who had previously received the clotting factor. In April 1984, HIV was determined to be the cause of AIDS, and by October of that year, blood centers began irradiating the blood clotting factor used to treat hemophiliacs to kill the virus. James and Diane Demers allege in the lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial later this year, that Drs. Doreen Brettler and Peter Levine of the New England Area Comprehensive Hemophilia Center in Worcester, Mass., a federally designated comprehensive treatment center, failed to warn them of the risks posed by HIV. They also said that the doctors did not switch to heated blood clotting factor until 1985 but told them to use untreated factor first. "We were led to believe that there was a very low risk. I think they sat back and watched how long it would be before our son would convert" to HIV-positive status, Diane Demers said. She added that once Wilfred tested positive in 1984 or 1985, the doctors withheld antiretroviral treatment until 1991, four years after the drug AZT became available.
Last summer, in what is thought to be the first verdict against a doctor charged with malpractice in a case involving HIV and hemophiliacs, a Worcester County jury found Brettler negligent in the care of William Modestino. The jury said Brettler "failed to fully inform" Modestino of the risks of using untreated blood clotting factor and did not "adequately treat him" for AIDS. However, the jury said Brettler's negligence did not cause Modestino's death and did not award monetary damages to Modestino's family. Levine was also charged in that suit, but the jury did not find him culpable. David Shrager, the Philadelphia lawyer who in 1997 won a $640 million judgment in a class-action suit against the makers of the blood clotting factor, said few doctors who treated hemophiliacs have been sued because "the state of the art was so dynamic" and the statute of limitations for hemophiliacs is now running out. However, he said that doctors like Levine who were "preeminent in the field" should have known about the risk to hemophiliacs earlier than other physicians. Brettler's attorney said she "regrets the death of her patients" but added that "everything she did was entirely appropriate and totally consistent with what physicians were doing at that period of time" (Dembner, Boston Globe, 4/2).