In 2017, Theresa May became the first prime minister to accept a public inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal which resulted in the deaths of thousands and hundreds more being infected with life-changing illnesses.
With the inquiry’s preliminary hearings coming to an end, clinical negligence solicitor, Nilma Shah takes a closer look into the tragedy.
The worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS
The contaminated blood scandal, in which over 7000 people were treated with infected blood products during the 1970s and 80s, is said to be the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS. It is estimated that 5000 people with haemophilia or other blood disorders developed HIV, Hepatitis C or both as a result of being treated with infected blood, with at least 2400 dying as a result.
The public inquiry, which launched in September 2018, will examine how thousands of people came to be infected through a clotting medicine commonly known as factor VIII and, in some cases, factor IX.
How did the blood products become infected?
Haemophilia is a genetic condition that results in a lack of the essential blood-clotting protein known as factor VIII, meaning even a small injury can result in a dramatic blood loss.
A major breakthrough in treatment came during the 70s whereby drug companies discovered they could extract clotting properties from blood plasma and freeze-dry them into powder. This meant that on suffering a bleed, haemophiliacs could simply take a bottle containing factor VIII out of their fridge, inject themselves and their blood would begin to clot.
There was such a huge demand that British laboratories were unable to keep up with the demand. By 1973 the government began buying cheap blood products from the US. A large amount of this blood came from prison inmates who were infected with hepatitis or HIV. Unlike in the UK where blood was donated on a voluntary basis, US donors were paid for donations, this included prisoners, drug addicts, sex workers and alcoholics, all of whom were susceptible to blood-borne illnesses.
A single batch of factor VIII could include blood from up to 20,000 donors. If even one donor was infected with a blood-borne disease the whole batch would be contaminated.
How could something like this go undetected for so many years?
Prior to 1991, blood donations were not screened, resulting in anyone receiving a blood transfusion before this time being at risk of infection. Shortly after Britain began importing blood from the US, there was an outbreak of hepatitis in haemophiliacs.
Hepatitis was known to be potentially fatal from the early 70s and by 1984 public health and blood industry officials become increasingly more certain that the AIDS pandemic was caused by a blood-borne virus (what they later learned to be HIV).
This knowledge came about partly due to the increased number of reported cases of AIDS among haemophiliacs and those who had received blood transfusions. Despite this knowledge – and the concerns of several leading medical experts - patients continued to be treated with factor VIII and factor IX.
It later became apparent that the government knew of the risk of contracting diseases from imported blood products from as early as 1983 but decided against a ban for fear it would result in a shortage of supply.
The government's failure to act is estimated to have caused over 1,700 haemophiliac deaths nationwide and brought devastation to lives of thousands more. The 250 remaining haemophiliacs who were ‘co-infected’ with both hepatitis and HIV have faced years of hardship, living both with a serious illness and, for many years, the stigma surrounding HIV.
What is the inquiry investigating?
The public inquiry will investigate and examine the cases of at least 5,000 people infected with transfusions because of failings in the screening and supply of British blood donations.
The inquiry will also investigate how and why contaminated blood was used freely in the NHS, what was known about the risk of infection, the impact on those affected and persistent claims of a cover-up.
The inquiry has now completed its preliminary hearings and plans to start its formal public hearings at the end of April 2019. Between now and then, public meetings will be held in 18 areas across the UK enabling people who have been affected to express their views to the inquiry team.
Duncan Lewis Clinical Negligence Solicitors
Solicitor Nilma Shah has been particularly moved by the scandal;
“The inquiry struck me personally because my mother-in-law was a haemophiliac and relied heavily upon blood transfusions. Secondly, early on in my career I worked on an interesting clinical negligence case where a child’s blood was contaminated with a serious blood disease causing a lifelong injury.”
If you have been infected or know of anyone who may have been infected and would like to have a free confidential discussion please call Nilma on 0203 114 1274, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, to discuss how we can help you.
Our clinical negligence team has significant experience acting in a vast array of claims, varying from A&E failures to GP negligence claims, to misdiagnosed cancer to wrongful death claims.
Our solicitors act for children and adults who have suffered profound and permanent brain, spinal or neurological injuries and associated disabilities as a consequence of failings in medical care in both NHS and private hospitals.
If you have any queries relating to clinical negligence or think that you may have a claim, please do not hesitate to contact our team of expert solicitors on 033 3772 0409.