The Contaminated Blood Scandal: Part 1 – the background

Articles

11/06/2024

In the 1970’s the NHS had an almost insatiable need for blood. New treatments needed large quantities of “hema” and a scientific discovery gave a group of sick individuals a reprieve (or so they thought) from their suffering.  

Haemophiliacs lack a specific protein, factor VIII, which enables their blood to clot. When transfusions were first administered in the 1940’s there were no effective treatments for haemophilia. However, in the 1960’s it was discovered that blood plasma could be broken down into a concentrate of clotting factors and in time factor VIII concentrate became available for haemophiliacs to administer at home. It was a successful treatment which significantly prolonged life expectancy

Unsurprisingly, once it was possible to administer factor VIII at home, demand for it skyrocketed and there was also a parallel explosive growth in prophylaxis. Operations requiring factor concentrate also became more and more common.

Taken together, the supply of concentrate needed increased hugely.

Despite the Health Minister having pronounced in 1975 that funds had been secured to make the UK self-sufficient within 2 years in blood products, this failed to happen until after 1990.

And so, in 1978, and against advice from The World Health Organization the NHS was sourcing 55% of factor VIII concentrate from overseas, including the USA, with ultimately catastrophic consequences.

In Britain, blood is donated voluntarily which generally ensured good quality. Conversely in America blood donors are paid. So Americans who needed easy money were often the predominant donors – drug addicts, sex workers, alcoholics and prisoners. These were high risk groups for hepatitis B and C and later HIV.

Unfortunately,  basic chemistry compounded this risk. Batches of blood plasma would be mixed and one mix could contain as many as 10,000 donors’ blood. Just one diseased donor would infect the whole batch. So, in the 1970’s soon after US blood products were first used, there was an explosion of hepatitis in British haemophiliacs.

Blood was also being used from other dubious sources in England. Prisons were regarded as a valuable source of blood donations from the 1950s until the 1970s. It became clear in the early 1970’s that there was a markedly higher incidence of Hepatitis B amongst prisoners. The American Red Cross stopped collecting blood from prisons in the US in July 1971 due to the incidence of hepatitis being ten times greater among prisoners than among voluntary unpaid donors. Despite this, it was still Home Office policy in the early 1980s to encourage prisoners to become donors as it was believed to help with rehabilitation.

The armed forces were another source of blood donors throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite similar risks to those seen in the prison population, because of the reluctance in disclosing personal risk factors in front of other members of the armed forces.

A new disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), began to appear in Western countries in the early 1980s (although it was probably being transmitted from the late 1970’s).

In December 1983, a British haemophiliac tested positive for HIV as a result of blood products, dying 18 months later of Aids-related illnesses. 

Again, concentrates became infected with HIV and so the rate of HIV in the UK haemophiliac population started to increase and their life expectancy was correspondingly reduced. They died stigmatised. Their partners became infected.

The astonishing scale of the disaster became clear in the mid 1980’s. In a test carried out in 1985, out of 98 patients who had received factor VIII, 76 tested positive for HIV.

Another study published in 1986 showed that 76% of those who received commercial clotting-factor products had become infected with HIV.

It was not until 1986 that blood donations began to be tested for the HIV virus. In 1991 testing for hepatitis C was also introduced.

At least 1,250 people in the UK contracted HIV (380 of which were children) from contaminated blood and half of them died from Aids-related illnesses.

About 30,000 more contracted hepatitis of which 2,050 died from liver failure or cancer. 

The Infected Blood Inquiry was announced in July 2017 to examine the circumstances in which patients treated by the NHS between 1970 and the early 1990s received infected blood and blood products. It began on 2nd July 2018 and the final report was published in May 2024. 

Cyrus has acted for both Claimants and Defendants in many high profile cases including the British Coal Disease Litigation and the Paddington Rail Disaster. He has over 30 years’ experience in acting in clinical negligence actions including cancer misdiagnosis cases. He also represents medical professionals in regulatory health care proceedings, has prosecuted and defended in the General Medical Council and also sits as a legal assessor at the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Featured Counsel

Cyrus Katrak

Call 1991

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