RARE DISEASES

Held for fraud: Spanish parents of sick girl who raised €150,000

Police investigating claims money not used for rare disease treatments in US and Afghanistan

Spanish police have arrested the parents of an 11-year-old girl with a rare disease, charging them with fraud after they raised over €150,000 in four days through media campaigns to pay for the child’s medical treatment.

Fernando Blanco with his daughter Nadia.
Fernando Blanco with his daughter Nadia.EL PAÍS

Authorities in the northeastern region of Catalonia are investigating the father’s claims that the money was used for cutting-edge medical treatments across the globe – including a visit to a world specialist who allegedly lives in a cave in Afghanistan.

But Fernando Blanco has failed to produced any evidence that he has visited experts with his daughter Nadia Nerea to find a cure for her trichothiodystrophy (TTD), an abnormality of the hair shaft characterized by fine brittle hair due to abnormally low sulfur levels. The disease can delay development and lead to significant intellectual disability and recurrent infections; severely affected individuals may not survive beyond early childhood.

Blanco now says he has been taking his daughter to see unlicensed healers, not world specialists

Blanco and his wife Margarita Garau raised €153,000 in just four days through a television and social media campaign in which the father claimed that he has already traveled to Guatemala, India, Panama, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Finland, Cuba and Chile to hire “the best specialists.”

Before that, the couple had already collected thousands more in various other donation drives for their daughter. The total amount could be in the range of €300,000, according to Blanco’s own estimates.

After his latest fund-raising drive, Blanco said he was going to use the money to take Nadia to a children’s hospital in Houston to undergo delicate surgery which he described as “a genetic manipulation that is prohibited in Spain” involving “three holes in the back of the neck.”

The website of the foundation created by Blanco to collect money for his daughter.
The website of the foundation created by Blanco to collect money for his daughter.Luis Magán (EL PAÍS)

EL PAÍS contacted the Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, the only hospital in Houston that fitted his description (the name he gave, Houston Children’s Hospital, does not exist), to be told it had no knowledge of the case or  the treatment.

Blanco also claimed that Nadia has already undergone four similar operations in the United States, performed by “a Mexican neurosurgeon” whose name he refused to reveal.

Medical experts agree that the procedure described by Blanco does not exist.

“The part about the holes in the neck and the cave in Afghanistan are straight out of a comic book,” said Lluis Montoliu, a researcher on rare diseases.

A history of fraud

Blanco has admitted that he was arrested in 2007 for fraud and forgery after taking out a loan to buy a second-hand car in Palma de Mallorca. He said he had to borrow the money from a group of fraudsters because he himself was on a bad debtor list and could not secure a bank loan. A decade earlier, Blanco had defaulted on mortgage payments on an apartment he shared with his previous partner.

After EL PAÍS and other media unveiled all the inconsistencies in his story, Blanco admitted that he has been taking his daughter to see unlicensed healers, not world specialists.

He promised to return all the money he has raised since 2009 from all his donation drives.

The couple were arrested on Wednesday in La Seu d’Urgell, in the Catalan province of Lleida. The investigating judge in charge of the case has demanded to see documentary evidence of the child’s medical treatments.

English version by Susana Urra.

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