2,000 dead and still no justice for the victims of Britain’s blood transfusion scandal
Published in the Daily Mail (October 18th, 2010)
A few months after his birth, Colin developed a bruise on his knee. It was seen by his aunt, whose son was haemophiliac, and she instantly knew what it meant — the baby was also a sufferer from the blood disorder nicknamed the ‘royal disease’ after it swept through Queen Victoria’s family.
So began regular trips to hospital so that Colin could have infusions of the blood clotting agent Factor VIII, ensuring he could live a normal life. All went well until he was two years old and went in for an operation to have grommets put into his ears.
The doctors used an old batch of the blood product, and the child was infected with HIV. Five years later, after months of terrible chest infections, raging fevers and debilitating diarrhoea, Colin died. He weighed just 13 pounds.
After Colin was diagnosed with HIV, his parents were told to wear gloves when treating their son and to burn his mattress. Yet, even after his death, they received no explanation, no counselling, no apology. Their questions went unanswered — their son’s short life was shrouded in mystery.
They were not even told for another three years that he had also been given highly-contagious hepatitis C, despite the huge risk to themselves and their other children.
Colin was just one of thousands of people whose lives were destroyed in what Lord Winston called ‘the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS’.
He was one of 4,670 British haemophiliacs left infected with Hepatitis C, of whom 1,243 were also infected with HIV. Almost 2,000 have since died as a result, with scores more needing organ transplants, and dialysis. Some victims inadvertently infected their partners.
But what makes the saga so shameful is not just the short cuts, greed and incompetence that led to so many deaths. It’s the cover-ups, the obfuscation and the heartlessness of successive governments that refused to admit to their failings and rejected pleas for help from suffering families.
The combination of avarice, foolishness and poor regulation has echoes of the banking crisis. Both started in the poorest parts of the U.S. and left a trail of destruction worldwide.
And last week, there was one more betrayal. In opposition, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats condemned the failure to deliver justice to the hundreds still afflicted by the contaminated blood scandal.
But now in government, the Coalition has revealed little more compassion than its predecessors. Forced to respond to backbench pressure, ministers said compensation offered elsewhere was too costly to give to British people given the public spending crisis.
It took nearly two decades for the horror of Colin’s story to emerge. The blood that killed him was discovered to have come from prisoners in Arkansas in the U.S.
You would be hard-pressed to find many higher-risk blood donors. Under the governorship of Bill Clinton, who now tours the world promoting Aids prevention, the state prisons developed a multi-million dollar industry selling prisoners’ blood.
The inmates were paid a small amount to give blood twice a week — like ‘little cows’, said one Clinton aide later.
This was not the only ‘bad blood’. One Canadian company was found to have extracted blood from Russian corpses, then re-labelled it as coming from donors in Sweden. The company also bought blood from Haitian slums and reportedly re-packaged out-of-date blood for sale in Europe.
The result of this is that thousands of haemophiliacs in countries such as Britain, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy and Japan were infected with deadly viruses in the Seventies and Eighties.
Haemophilia, a rare inherited disorder which means blood does not clot properly, leads to recurrent bleeding, usually into the joints, which may occur spontaneously or after injury.
To prevent this, sufferers rely on injections of anti-coagulants made from blood plasma. Tragically, the product that helped give them a normal life led to their slaughter.
Imagine the outcry if the numbers affected by tainted blood were killed in a one-off disaster. But, instead, these people have slipped away quietly one by one over the years, forgotten victims of a silent and avoidable holocaust.
In Britain, taking blood from paid donors is deemed unsafe since it tends to attract the desperate in society.
In the U.S., however, trade in prison blood was permitted until 1984. Then it was banned internally, but exports were allowed to continue. Incredibly, the British authorities continued to buy it, having delayed a drive towards self-sufficiency in blood products.
Government papers leaked this year found that even as the resulting infections spread, officials displayed astonishing heartlessness.
One Department of Health memo said: ‘Of course, 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.’ Vaccines that could have prevented deaths were ruled too expensive.
No doubt such views explain why the results of an internal inquiry have never been published. Perhaps they also explain why, four years ago, Caroline Flint, then Public Health Minister, announced that key documents had been destroyed ‘in error’ by a junior member of staff.
Even when a privately-funded public inquiry was set up, the Government withheld vital papers — allegedly on confidentiality grounds — then refused to give evidence.
The report of the two-year inquiry, released in February last year, condemned the ‘horrific human tragedy’. It concluded Britain was slow to react to the problems as they emerged and said commercial interests were put ahead of safety.
But demands for all victims to be given decent compensation were brushed aside. There was a paltry increase in financial help for those with HIV, but nothing for those with hepatitis C beyond the promise of a review in five years time — by which time many more will have died in penury.
There’s also still no money for the widows of those who died before 2003 from hepatitis C.
In Ireland, those infected with hepatitis C were awarded an average of £750,000 each after a public inquiry in 1991. But last week, ministers ruled out similar compensation, saying it would cost more than £3 billion. The best they offered was a rapid, but limited, review into the cases of those infected with hepatitis C.
As someone with a related, although less severe, blood disorder, I spent my childhood in the haematology departments of hospitals.
Many of those children in beds beside me will now be dead, victims of this wretched chapter of greed. In France and Japan, people have been sent to jail for their role in the scandal. In Canada, the Red Cross was prosecuted for negligence.
In Britain, this scandal has dragged on too long. There have been too many deaths, too much pain, too much grief and too many betrayals.
The Government must admit its failures and accept that it let down people in the most tragic way possible — if only to bring some peace at last to Colin’s family and thousands more like them.