Bad decisions made by government – 6: failure to accept responsibility for using infected blood products in NHS hospitals
Eight years ago the Lancet reported the Irish parliament’s generous compensation package for haemophiliacs infected by contaminated blood products. The British government has not treated victims so well. Many of the relevant records have disappeared. Former Health Secretary Patrick Jenkin and former Health Minister David Owen both searched the departmental archives, but were told that the documents had been accidentally destroyed.
Medics and politicians knew by the mid 1970s that commercially manufactured blood products from the USA were suspect. By the mid-1980s there were warnings of a similar situation in respect of HIV. Nevertheless these products continued to be imported and used.
Last year a report was published following a privately-funded, independent inquiry, undertaken by former Solicitor General, Lord Archer, Dr Norman Jones FRCP: Emeritus Consulting Physician to St Thomas’ Hospital and Ms Judith Willetts: Chief Executive of the British Society for Immunology. It repeatedly deplores the commercial practice which had damaged the health of so many people.
The blood industry constituted a powerful lobby, and nothing was done
The Archer report recorded that in the 70s, Dr J Garrott Allen found that the incidence of Hepatitis among haemophilia patients was related to the increase in the use of prison plasma and “Skid Row” inhabitants, “whose use of alcohol, drugs and unsterilised needles made them prime hepatitis carriers”. His findings, published in the journal “California Medicine”, provoked a national debate but “the blood industry constituted a powerful lobby, and nothing was done”.
A high rate of infection was reported in the products of two commercial companies
On 6th January 1975, Dr Allen wrote to Dr William Maycock, then Director of the United Kingdom Blood Transfusion Service, expressing anxiety about blood products from paid and prison donors. He mentioned that the products of two American commercial companies were reported as carrying a high rate of infection. They were not named, but elsewhere we read that Baxter Healthcare has supplied blood products to the UK for 40 years and have – like Bayer Corporation’s Cutter Biological division – been defendants in USA lawsuits. Both had recruited and paid donors from high-risk populations.
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that commercial interests took precedence over public health concerns”
Archer concludes: “Long after alarms had been sounded about the risks of obtaining paid-for blood donations from communities with an increased incidence of relevant infections, such as prison inmates, this practice continued. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that commercial interests took precedence over public health concerns.”
Government whip halts compensation bill
Lord Morris, president of the Haemophilia Society, has been fighting for better treatment of patients infected with contaminated blood products for years. In December 2009 he presented a private member’s bill in the Lords to compensate the victims and improve the future treatment of the survivors. As with the Jubilee Debt Bill, the procedure of shouting “object” was used to delay the bill by the Labour government whip, Kerry McCarthy. Lord Morris told BBC reporter Susan Watts: “If she had not shouted object to the bill it would now be in committee, debated line by line. What took place prevented any further debate on the bill . . . “
In April 2010, Mr Justice Holman ruled that the way the UK government had reached its decision on compensation levels was flawed . . .
As a nation we have failed these victims. Corporate-political interests failed to accept responsibility and compensate Union Carbide’s victims in Bhopal and those suffering from hepatitis and liver damage due to infected blood products administered in our National Health Service hospitals. But ultimately, as Sharma points out re Bhopal, it is a collective failure: the public has failed to express a level of outrage which would shame the government into right action.
Will the coalition government right this wrong?
Parliamentary copyright image of Lord Morris was reproduced with the permission of Parliament