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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Blood on their hands: the worst disaster in NHS history

Published by The Daily Mail (1st May, 2019)

Steve Dymond and I never met. But over the years we developed a warm relationship via email and the odd phone call after he read an article I’d written about the contaminated blood scandal.

In that newspaper column in 2010, I first raged over this shameful saga of greed, incompetence, obfuscation, suspected cover-up and official heartlessness that had left almost 2,000 haemophiliacs dead, with many more lives destroyed by ill-health after they contracted HIV and/or hepatitis C.

Today, the death toll is closer to 3,000 – and Steve Dymond is among them.

Many thousands of hospital patients may have also received contaminated blood and blood products in transfusions during surgery or childbirth.

One Parliamentary report in 2015 concluded perhaps 7,500 people in total were infected.

This is the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS. And, as the long-awaited public inquiry started yesterday, we should recall the scale on which these people were failed. It is a scandal of epic proportions involving the most grotesque betrayal of desperately ill citizens and their devastated families by the state.

Steve was a haemophiliac. His blood did not clot properly, leaving him prone to excessive bleeding after even the slightest bruise or cut.

This did not stop him living a full life, however. He played rugby at school and studied Russian at university – until one day, some three decades ago, he bruised his hand in the garden. It was a minor accident and there was no bleeding, but opting for caution he went to have the bump checked at hospital – and was needlessly given a blood clotting agent by the duty doctor.

Steve fell ill almost instantly, the start of a long mental and physical decline. He lost his job in publishing and his hopes of having children – although he never lost his wit, always joking with me about his demeanour after I once described him as ‘courteous’ in print.

It took more than a decade to establish the cause: he had been infected with a hepatitis C virus lurking in the blood clotting agent. And by the time effective drugs became available it was too late; his liver was riddled with cirrhosis.

Despite his health struggles, Steve sent me regular notes to keep me informed on the fight for justice by haemophiliacs. ‘I am beyond anger,’ he said last year. ‘I’m trapped in a cold and dark place that I would not wish on anyone.’

Steve died in December aged 62, his shattered organs giving up their fight as he held his wife Su’s hand. ‘His last words were to insist that the persons responsible for the scandal are brought to justice and live to repent,’ she told me.

At least Steve lived to hear in July 2017 that a public inquiry would at last be held into what has been called ‘the haemophilia holocaust’ – although such is the slow pace another 150 victims are thought to have died since that announcement.

In his opening remarks yesterday, former High Court judge Sir Brian Langstaff said he hoped the hearings would ‘spread the message that those who are struggling with infections of HIV or hepatitis through blood or blood products are not alone’.

Yet for decades, these patients and their families found themselves desperately alone as they fought to highlight their dreadful situation. Despite clear and disturbing state failure, politicians and officials responded with evasion and foot-dragging.

The scandal’s roots stretch back close to half a century, to the 1970s and 1980s when the NHS imported blood products from commercial organisations in the US that used pooled blood from paid donors to make them.

The donors included some of the highest-risk groups on the planet for HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections: drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, slum dwellers and prison inmates. In Arkansas, for example, prisoners were paid small sums to donate twice a week – like ‘little cows’ in the crass words of one official.

It is illegal to pay British blood donors on safety grounds. Yet incredibly Britain was still buying these lethal blood products after US authorities banned their sale in America in 1983.

Haemophiliacs, whose lives had been transformed by regular treatment with new clotting agents such as Factor VIII made from blood plasma, were hardest hit. Almost 5,000 were infected with hepatitis C or HIV. In late 1983, haemophiliacs started being diagnosed with Aids in Britain and officials began warning internally about the dangers of blood products bought from the US.

Yet, in November that year, Kenneth Clarke, then Health Secretary, told the House of Commons that ‘there is no conclusive evidence Aids is transmitted by blood products’.

Later it emerged from a Freedom of Information request that, in March 1985, an official in the Department of Health had weighed up the cost benefits of dead haemophiliacs in an internal memo. ‘The maintenance of the life of a haemophiliac is itself expensive, and I am very much afraid that those who are already doomed will generate savings which more than cover the cost of testing blood donations,’ he wrote.

The human cost was high. One couple told me of seeing their disease-ravaged, seven-year-old haemophiliac son die weighing just 13lb after months of cruel infections, diarrhoea and fevers.

They were told to burn his mattress afterwards. Yet it was another three years before they learned their child had contracted highly contagious hepatitis C despite the risk to themselves and other family members.

At one specialist boarding school in Hampshire that pioneered the ‘miracle’ clotting treatments, at least 72 of the 89 haemophiliacs sent there in the decade after 1975 have died. As one survivor – now desperately sick – said to me, that number of deaths alone should have sparked a public inquiry.

Sixteen Western countries acted faster than Britain to introduce screening of blood and blood products for hepatitis C. There is also alarming evidence of British patients being treated as unwitting guinea pigs by doctors who were aware of the dangers.

In the US, the companies that created contaminated products were forced to pay huge compensation. In France, at least 30 doctors, ministers and officials were prosecuted. In Canada and Japan, there were criminal convictions.

In Ireland, people given hepatitis C were awarded payouts averaging £750,000. Yet in Britain, no one accepted responsibility and there were only derisory payments – some with tight conditions attached to guard against future court claims – along with torrents of empty promises and hollow words.

As someone who suffered from a related blood disorder as a child, I have a particular interest in this story. It is likely, after all, that some of the other young patients in haematology units alongside me are among the victims.

This inquiry is a step forward in a scandal that scars the sanctified NHS and its masters in Westminster and Whitehall, highlighting yet again the shameful official complacency over patient safety.

Sadly, Steve Dymond, such a decent man and doughty campaigner, did not live long enough to see it start. But we owe it to him, his wife and thousands like them who have suffered for decades to expose the full damning truth about these sordid events.

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