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The biggest disaster in the NHS’s history: 2,000 died after 34,000 were given HIV or | hepatitis C | through infected blood…but it took 30 years for an apology

 

  • 7,500 people, many haemophiliacs, given contaminated blood
  • Diseases came from high risk donors including prostitutes and prisoners 
  • Many victims needed liver transplants and dialysis
  • People inadvertently infected partners and children with diseases 
  • Follows publication of 1,800-page, six-year report into scandal  

The Government will apologise this week for what has been called the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service – the infection of thousands of patients with deadly diseases through use of contaminated blood products.

Following the personal intervention of David Cameron, there will be a formal statement of regret given to the House of Commons, similar to those acknowledging the official failures of Bloody Sunday and the Hillsborough football disaster.

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This will come after the publication on Wednesday of the 1,800-page Penrose Inquiry, a six-year report into a scandal that has led to more than 2,000 British deaths.

Apology: David Cameron will say sorry this week for what has been called the worst treatment disaster in the history of the National Health Service

About 7,500 people, many of them haemophiliacs, are known to have contracted HIV and hepatitis C after being given imported blood products taken from high-risk donors such as prostitutes and prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s.

Their lives were devastated, with many unable ever to work again and forced into financial hardship.

Scores of victims needed liver transplants or regular dialysis, while others inadvertently infected partners and children.

Health officials believe another 27,000 patients may have been infected with hepatitis without ever being identified.

The £11 million inquiry led by Scottish judge Lord Penrose was set up by the Scottish Parliament

to probe claims that Ministers, civil servants and health authorities were slow to heed warning signs and subsequently covered up their complacency.

Since it covers a period before health services were devolved, the heavily delayed findings will have ramifications across the entire country.

Warning letters have been sent to those facing significant criticism.

Although the Government may not give its full response to the report this week, it intends to put aside extra money for victims.

‘There’s a feeling we need to right a historic wrong,’ said one Westminster source. ‘This is a failure of even greater magnitude than Hillsborough.’

Victims have long complained about discretionary financial support distributed through five different trusts, leaving claimants complaining of feeling like ‘modern-day beggars’.

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Many were not expected to live long in the days before HIV became more treatable.

Mr Cameron has heard first-hand from constituents about the tragic impact of contaminated blood.

‘We should be helping these people more,’ he said earlier this month.

They gave Robert AIDS – then they killed his relatives… 

In 1983, Robert Mackie asked his doctor about reports of haemophiliacs developing a mysterious new disease called AIDS that was killing its victims within a couple of years.

They told him not to worry. So the coachbuilder returned to his wife and carried on with his life of sport and salmon fishing as before, interspersed with bouts of treatment for his haemophilia.

Little did he know it, but Mackie had already been given hepatitis C from contaminated blood

products. Then in March the following year, he was infected with HIV – and, in an instant, his life was devastated.

Later, the lethal virus advanced into full-blown AIDS. He had to give up work – as did his wife, Alice, to care for him.

Outrage: Haemophiliac Robert Mackie was first infected with Hepatitis C and then HIV through contaminated blood from high risk donors including drug users and prisoners

Outrage: Haemophiliac Robert Mackie was first infected with Hepatitis C and then HIV through contaminated blood from high risk donors including drug users and prisoners

His condition worsened and he could barely climb stairs; they were fortunate their son was born healthy.

Yet Mackie, 64, is just one of thousands whose lives were wrecked by products designed to treat their inherited condition by helping blood clot.

The roll call of deaths include two of his uncles, a cousin, and several close friends in the Scottish haemophilia community.

No one has ever made an official apology or admission of responsibility
Victim Robert Mackie

No wonder he is angry, like others I have spoken to while investigating this shocking saga for The Mail on Sunday.

Not just with the incompetence and coverups, but with the lack of a national public inquiry, prosecutions or public apology – and piecemeal compensation payments.

What makes it even worse in Mackie’s case is that he was part of a group of Edinburgh haemophiliacs whose medical records indicate they were used to study AIDS from the year before he was infected.

Clearly, they were being used as guinea pigs. There was medical knowledge of the risks they faced – yet the patients were not asked for consent or given warnings over their treatments.

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‘I find this absolutely outrageous,’ he told me.

I first came across this story five years ago, stunned both by the scale of the scandal and the seeming lack of concern towards people failed so terribly and so tragically by the health system.

It struck home since I have a closely-related blood disorder, spending many childhood days in hospital haematology units alongside young haemophiliacs. Sadly, I suspect scores of them are now dead.

Long fight: Members of the Haemophilia Society delegation delivered a petition to David Cameron, along with lilies to represent people that have died as a result of being given infected blood

Long fight: Members of the Haemophilia Society delegation delivered a petition to David Cameron, along with lilies to represent people that have died as a result of being given infected blood

Among those I have talked to are Janet and Colin Smith, who saw their son, also called Colin, die at the age of seven weighing just 13 pounds.

And Melanie McKay, told aged 14 that she had been given HIV seven years earlier, dashing her dreams of becoming a paediatric nurse.

Britain was shamefully slow to react to rising concerns over tainted blood supplies as the dangers emerged in the early 1980s.

Calls to ban dangerous imported products were made as early as May 1983, with the first British haemophiliac reported to have AIDS that August – yet patients were still being infected with HIV from blood products two years later.

Some 1,500 ended up with the virus, many suffering in silence to avoid the acute stigma people faced at the time.

Then at least 16 Western countries acted faster to screen for hepatitis C after it was finally isolated in 1988. It was known from at least a decade earlier that such viruses were in the donor pool.

Haemophiliacs were hit hard since they rely on coagulants made from blood plasma to combat a rare genetic condition that means their own blood does not clot properly.

They were treated with Factor VIII, based on pooled donations from thousands of people. It later emerged these included some of the highest-risk donors imaginable such as drug addicts, prostitutes and Haitian slum dwellers.

One Canadian company was even discovered to have relabelled blood extracted from Russian corpses as coming from Scandinavian donors.

In Britain, the use of paid donors is banned since it attracts people desperate for money. Yet incredibly, imports were permitted of Factor VIII using blood taken from American prisoners paid to give blood.

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Even when safer heat-treated products became available, it was left up to doctors to decide whether to use them – and many opted to use up old supplies first.

Meanwhile, haemophiliacs given hepatitis were routinely accused of being alcoholics, such was the severity of damage to their livers.

As the scandal seeped into the open, it emerged that key Government documents had been shredded, supposedly in error by a junior official.

Infections: Blood taken from high-risk donors including prisoners and prostitutes infected 7,500 people 30 years ago. A formal apology is due to be issued later this week

Infections: Blood taken from high-risk donors including prisoners and prostitutes infected 7,500 people 30 years ago. A formal apology is due to be issued later this week

One Whitehall circular quoted a Minister saying ‘only haemophiliacs have died’. A leaked health department memo said that while saving their lives was ‘expensive’ there was a ‘strong cost benefit’ since ‘those already doomed will generate savings which more than cover the cost of testing blood donations’.

Britain was not the only nation hit by a tainted blood scandal. But in France, Canada and Japan, there have been prosecutions and convictions of bungling officials, while in Ireland, people given hepatitis C were awarded payouts averaging £750,000.

What a contrast with Britain – to the justified fury of haemophiliacs such as Steve Gorman, a skilled linguist forced by hepatitis to abandon his teaching career.

‘No one has ever made an official apology or admission of responsibility,’ said Gorman, from Broadstairs, Kent. ‘This makes us all so angry.’

At least this looks set to change finally. This is an episode that has, after all, destroyed the lives of many more people than even the mid-Staffordshire hospital scandal.

Yet as Simon di Rollo, the senior counsel for patients and relatives, said in his summing up to Lord Penrose: ‘Why is it so hard for institutions like the NHS and Government departments responsible for its administration to admit publicly mistakes and misjudgments?’

A very good question. Especially when so many of these unfortunate people have suffered bloody hell for so long thanks to the shocking failures of the services meant to help them.

 

 

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