Page last updated at 00:14 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Contaminated blood cases 'tragic'

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A public inquiry has condemned the failings that led to thousands of people being infected with HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood.

The independent privately-funded inquiry called the use of contaminated blood products to treat patients with haemophilia a "horrific human tragedy".

The report suggested UK authorities had been slow to react, but accepted it was hard to directly apportion blame.

In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly 5,000 people were exposed to hepatitis C.

Of these, more than 1,200 were also infected with HIV.

Almost 2,000 of those people have since died as a result.

INFECTED PATIENT
Haydn Lewis
Haydn Lewis, 52, from Cardiff, is a haemophiliac who became infected with HIV and hepatitis C from tainted blood.
He is now on the waiting list for a liver transplant, and believes he infected his wife because doctors delayed telling him.
He said the report should have been more critical of government, and recommended better compensation arrangements for those affected.
"I want to wake up one morning and not have to think about this issue because that is how you lead a constructive life," he said.
"This has been a ball and chain around my ankle for 20-odd years, trying to get it addressed once and for all with some closure."
Despite the death toll, successive governments have refused to admit any fault or hold an investigation, forcing this public inquiry to rely on private donors.

Haemophilia is a rare inherited bleeding disorder in which the blood does not clot normally.

There is no cure, but the condition can be managed using a clotting chemical.

From 1973, some blood products containing such treatment were imported from the US as UK suppliers could not keep pace with demand.

The two-year inquiry, led by Lord Archer of Sandwell, said the main responsibility for the tragedy rested with the US suppliers of the contaminated blood products.

He said commercial interests appeared to have been given a higher priority than patient safety.

Viruses

Much of the blood had come from down-at-heel "skid row" donors, such as prison inmates, whose risk of hepatitis C and HIV was much higher than that of the general population.

Blood products began to be heat-treated from the mid 1980s to kill viruses.

However, Lord Archer also criticised the government at the time for being slow to become self-sufficient with blood products - it would have been unlikely for UK-sourced treatment to come from such a population of donors.

He said there was "lethargic" progress, with England and Wales taking 13 years compared to just five in Ireland.

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But he added: "It is a bit late to say who is to blame when little can be done about it.

"What the government ought to address is the needs of people now."

To do this, he recommended a government-administered and backed compensation scheme for those who were affected - money currently available to victims comes from charitable trusts.

And to improve the treatment and management of the condition, the inquiry called for a committee of specialists to be set up to act as official advisers to ministers.

Lord Archer also said a public inquiry should have been held earlier.

He said some witnesses were unable to fully recollect what had happened because of the passage of time.

And Lord Archer lamented the decision of the Department of Health not to give evidence publicly - there were several private meetings with officials - and with-hold certain documents.

"It is hard to say what we could have found out."

'Swift action'

Sue Threakall, from the campaign group from Tainted Blood whose husband died after being given contaminated blood, welcomed the report.

She said: "What we need now is to see some very swift action from the government.

"All we have ever wanted is the truth, and some justice."

Christopher James, chief executive of the Haemophilia Society, agreed.

He said the use of contaminated blood was the "worst tragedy in the history of the NHS", and the way victims had been treated to date had not been right. He urged ministers to make up for this.

He said: "It is absolutely shameful that successive governments have not held a public inquiry into this issue.

"We've said for some time that the current level of payments and the method of payment are inappropriate and not fit for purpose.

"It is now up to the government to look at the report.

"We want them to act on it urgently and significantly."

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A Department of Health spokesman said: "We have great sympathy for the patients and families affected and will study the findings of Lord Archer's report in detail."

He added there was now "robust screening" of blood and blood products taking place.

The Scottish Executive has promised a full public inquiry.

Publication of the report follows the news last week of the first case of vCJD in a patient with haemophilia - discovered during a post-mortem after the patient died from other causes.

Up to 4,000 haemophilia sufferers have been warned they could be at risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Andrew March, a haemophiliac who contracted both HIV and Hepatitis C through contaminated blood treatments, said he believed that information had been deliberately hidden.

"I believe there's been a definite cover-up of the information," he said.

"You know, various documents weren't released in the FOI that came directly from the department.

"Campaigners had to source these documents under their own initiative. Well, intent's a very hard thing to prove but I do believe there was wrongdoing."

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SEE ALSO
Concern over Scots Hep C inquiry
23 Feb 09 |  Scotland
First case of haemophiliac vCJD
17 Feb 09 |  Health

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