Tainted Blood on the NHS – 1973

Described as ‘the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS’, the tainted ‘Hemofil’ blood product that was used to treat hemophiliacs from the end of 1973 was imported from the USA, despite an earlier recommendation that the UK should become self-sufficient in blood product as soon as possible. In 1974 an outbreak of hepatitis among hemophiliac patients was the first sign that something was seriously amiss. It gradually emerged that nearly 5,000 NHS patients had been infected with potentially life-threatening Hepatitis C, often in combination with HIV.

Successive governments have consistently refused to hold a public enquiry, maintaining that the NHS could not be held responsible because it could not have known the blood was tainted. But, unlike UK blood which is always freely donated from carefully screened donors, much of the US donated blood had come from a single source – the Arkansas prison system. Inmates at high risk of disease – mainly drug addicts and ‘skid row’ down-and-outs – had been selling their blood to pharmaceutical companies to get extra money while they were in gaol. The pharmaceutical companies’ commercial interests had taken precedence over concern for patient safety. And the NHS had used this blood product in the full knowledge that it had not been properly screened.

It has been an uphill battle for the past two decades to get the British government to accept liability. Eventually, affected patients organized a privately funded investigation, chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell, former Solicitor General. The Department of Health not only refused to give evidence to the enquiry but also ‘lost’ incriminating documents, while the government withheld more than 30 documents on grounds of confidentiality. When Lord Archer published his report in 2009 he called for a government apology, describing the affair as a ‘horrific human tragedy’.

When: 1973 onwards

Where: UK

Death toll: Out of 4,670 hemophiliac patients infected with Hepatitis C (a chronic, potentially fatal liver disease) 1,243 were also infected with HIV and 1,756 have since died.

You should know: Hemophiliacs suffer from a disorder of the blood that prevents it from clotting properly, thus risking bleeding to death. Their condition can be controlled by regular injections of a blood-clotting factor. Health authorities in England and wales continued to use clotting factor from human blood plasma long after most developed countries had started to use much safer synthetic alternatives. Heat treatment to decontaminate human blood product was not introduced until the 1980s and routine testing of donated blood only began in 1991. Government procrastination has potentially put at risk another 4,000 lives from vCJD-contaminated blood between 1980 and 2001.

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