Public Inquiry Into Disastrous Blood Transfusions
Though Sir Brian’s opening address combined formality and precision with the promise of a fair hearing for victims of the tainted transfusions, for many it has been a long wait. Contaminated blood products came from the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. Some patients received infected transfusions or blood products at only eleven years of age. Later, after the facts came to light and led to years of wrangling, infected individuals and their families began to suspect systematic, official cover-ups to frustrate blood transfusion claims.
Those victims of the disastrous medical treatment who feel able to testify look likely to give emotionally charged accounts. Contaminated blood products infected around 7,500 recipients of transfusions with Hepatitis C and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) – an act of manslaughter, according to harrowing accusations from sufferers. Another spoke of wanting to cry because of lost friends, while a central participant in the inquiry, Michelle Tolley, described the scandal as the worst in the NHS. She told how, on waking every day, she felt as though a death sentence hung over her.
More than 4,689 people fell victim to the medical scandal three or four decades ago, the majority of whom were haemophiliacs. Subsequently, after the original blunders came to the attention of the media, other shocking news revealed that the tainted transfusion supplies came from high-risk groups in the USA: drug addicts, sex workers and prisoners who received cash payments in return for blood donations. In several cases, infections occurred through contaminated Factor VIII supplies. This blood product is a vital clotting protein that haemophiliacs are unable to produce for themselves, but which can be harvested and produced from transfusions.
Ignorance or Complicity?
Through newly revealed cabinet papers, investigative journalists from Sky news uncovered suspicions that ministers could have become aware of the contamination back in 1987. Since that time, unfortunately, nearly 3,000 HIV and Hepatitis C sufferers have died – including 1,200 who suffered from both those illnesses. Naturally, the latter category carries a less optimistic medical prognosis; there are now only around fifty survivors.
Solicitors are requesting previous prime ministers including David Cameron and John Major to provide evidence to the inquiry about what they knew of these matters. Campaigners also suspect the Department of Health of covering up and destroying documents, in addition to being complicit with the drugs industry. Worryingly, there have been accusations that some haemophiliacs might have, in effect, become research guinea pigs and deliberately infected. Other reports recall that previous health minister Lord Owen once called for the UK to become self-sufficient in Factor VIII, but – astonishingly – his official archived papers went missing or were destroyed.
Screening Programme Failure
In addition, the inquiry will look into the cases of over 5,000 affected patients who acquired infections through blood transfusions from contaminated supplies due to deficiencies in screening. These sufferers speak of how they, their partners and their children – sometimes also infected – still live with the consequences and the effects of the stigma surrounding HIV during the 1980s.
Concerns and Scepticism
Last July (2017), just before a Parliamentary debate on the issue and a victim-initiated group action in the High Court, the government announced the inquiry. However, concerns mount that even more patients will not survive to hear the recommendations of the investigation; a further seventy have died since the announcement of proceedings. Campaign group Factor VIII member Jason Evans had been calling for a judge-led inquiry for some three years. Now 29, Jason’s father died twenty-five years ago when Jason was only four, leaving huge ripples.
In summary, campaigners’ comments are sceptical of pharmaceutical companies, while their fingers often point at the health service and government officials involved. With the inquiry proceedings underway, perhaps the prevailing doubt, fear and uncertainty will be mellow to cautious optimism.
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