As a UK public inquiry into contaminated blood products in the 1980s that has caused thousands of deaths, a new TV documentary examines what has been called the biggest treatment disaster in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) history – how thousands of British haemophiliacs were infected and died from HIV and hepatitis C after being prescribed infected blood products by the NHS.
This week at the inquiry, Lord Owen declared those infected by HIV and other deadly diseases were “failed” by the medical profession and by politicians. Owen was Minister of State for Health from 1974 to 1976. He said he “deeply regretted” that the UK had to import blood products from the US and was not self-sufficient in supply. Despite pledges made in the 1970s, the nation kept sourcing blood products from less regulated sources, including US prisons.
Now a life peer, Lord Owen has publicly called the scandal a cover-up and has said that legally, “the government hasn’t got a leg to stand on”.
Solicitor Des Collins, who represents over 1,500 victims, issued a statement after the hearing of Lord Owen’s evidence: “The resumption of the Infected Blood Inquiry is a new opportunity for politicians and medical professionals to come clean as to their involvement in the biggest medical scandal in living memory.
“We applaud Lord Owen for giving his testimony, he has long stated his disapproval of the way Whitehall has treated those who were infected with Hepatitis C and HIV from contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It’s high time successive Health Secretaries and Ministers, each with responsibility for an apparent abrogation of duty, showed similar resolve and came to the Inquiry to give detailed and honest testimony.“After some 40 years, the infected and affected deserve to hear the truth from those in charge at the time.
“We also renew our calls for the Government to accept liability and pay immediate, meaningful compensation to all those whose lives have been destroyed by the contaminated blood scandal, the victims and their families have a right to justice now, rather than waiting until the Inquiry reports in a couple of years’ time.”
The stories of lives destroyed by the haemophilia scandal, which killed more people than any other UK disaster, are revealed in the ITV Exposure documentary, In Cold Blood . Daily Mirror reports that it exposes the 1980s cover-up over bleeding disorder patients receiving a treatment made from US donor blood – some of which was infected with the HIV and hepatitis C viruses. Some victims were compensated, but with a gagging clause attached.
The report says over 4,000 people were infected with hepatitis C and 1,300 with HIV and documents revealing blunders that saw thousands killed by contaminated blood products were destroyed as the scandal emerged.
Officials at the Health Department feared their failures to protect haemophiliacs would be made public, so dispatched records for shredding, say campaigners. In the 1970s the Factor 8 treatment for haemophilia was prescribed on the NHS, but demand saw surplus sourced from America where donors were paid.
Documents revealing blunders that saw thousands killed by contaminated blood products were destroyed as the scandal emerged. Officials at the UK’s Health Department feared their failures to protect haemophiliacs would be made public, so dispatched records for shredding, say campaigners. In the 1970s the Factor 8 treatment for haemophilia was prescribed on the NHS, but demand saw surplus sourced from the US where donors were paid.
A 2017 report in The Guardian give answers to key questions around how thousands of people became infected with hepatitis C and HIV through blood transfusions in 1970s and 80s.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people with the blood-clotting disorder haemophilia in the UK were given blood donated – or sold – by people who were infected with the HIV virus and hepatitis C.
How many people became infected with these viruses as a result? According to Tainted Blood, the group that has been campaigning for decades for recognition of the wrongs done to the haemophiliacs and pressing for compensation, 4,800 of them were infected with hepatitis C, a virus that causes liver damage and can be fatal. Of those, 1,200 were also infected with HIV, which can cause Aids. Half – 2,400 – have now died.
How did the blood become contaminated?
In the 1970s, people with haemophilia began to be given “factor concentrates” to treat their symptoms, which included severe pain and potential organ damage. Drug companies found they could take the clotting factors out of blood plasma and freeze-dry them into a powder. There was a big demand, which led to pharmaceutical companies seeking substantial supplies of blood. In the US, prisoners and people who were addicted to drugs were among those paid to give their blood. Unfortunately, the donations were all mixed together, which increased the chances that any virus would contaminate many batches of factor concentrate. The main problem was with a product called Factor VIII.
When did it become clear that the blood products were contaminated?
The hepatitis C danger emerged in the 1970s. In the 1980s, once it became clear that HIV was blood-borne, the UK government refused to buy products that had not been heat-treated. But campaigners have unearthed evidence that officials in the Health Department knew or suspected that the imported factor concentrates were risky as early as 1983. Yet the NHS continued to give them to haemophiliacs.
Has there been any compensation?
In 1991, when campaigners were threatening to take the government to court, it made ex-gratia payments to those infected with HIV, averaging £60,000 each, on condition that they dropped further legal claims. The extent of infection with hepatitis C was not discovered until years later.
Hasn’t there been an inquiry?
In the absence of an official government inquiry, an independent inquiry was set up in 2007 by Lord Morris of Manchester and chaired by the former solicitor general Lord Archer. It took two years, holding public hearings that proved highly emotional as people told of wrecked lives, financial distress and the deaths of loved ones. Government ministers were strongly criticised for refusing to give evidence. Lord Owen, a health minister in the 1970s, said he was dismayed by the destruction of documents that could have explained what happened and who knew what at the time. Archer in his report in 2009 described the scandal as “a horrific human tragedy” and called on the government to negotiate a fairer compensation package for those who had suffered.
Full account of this week’s proceedings in The Express
Full ITV interview
Full Daily Mirror report
Full report in The Guardian