What is the contaminated blood scandal?

Key questions around how thousands of people became infected with hepatitis C and HIV through blood transfusions in 1970s and 80s

What happened?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people with the blood-clotting disorder haemophilia in the UK were given blood donated – or sold – by people who were infected with the HIV virus and hepatitis C.

How many people became infected with these viruses as a result?

According to Tainted Blood, the group that has been campaigning for decades for recognition of the wrongs done to the haemophiliacs and pressing for compensation, 4,800 of them were infected with hepatitis C, a virus that causes liver damage and can be fatal. Of those, 1,200 were also infected with HIV, which can cause Aids. Half – 2,400 – have now died.

How did the blood become contaminated?

In the 1970s, people with haemophilia began to be given “factor concentrates” to treat their symptoms, which included severe pain and potential organ damage. Drug companies found they could take the clotting factors out of blood plasma and freeze-dry them into a powder. There was a big demand, which led to pharmaceutical companies seeking substantial supplies of blood. In the United States, prisoners and people who were addicted to drugs were among those paid to give their blood. Unfortunately, the donations were all mixed together, which increased the chances that any virus would contaminate many batches of factor concentrate. The main problem was with a product called Factor VIII.

When did it become clear that the blood products were contaminated?

The hepatitis C danger emerged in the 1970s. In the 1980s, once it became clear that HIV was blood-borne, the UK government refused to buy products that had not been heat-treated. But campaigners have unearthed evidence that officials in the Department of Health knew or suspected that the imported factor concentrates were risky as early as 1983. Yet the NHS continued to give them to haemophiliacs.

Has there been any compensation?

In 1991, when campaigners were threatening to take the government to court, it made ex-gratia payments to those infected with HIV, averaging £60,000 each, on condition that they dropped further legal claims. The extent of infection with hepatitis C was not discovered until years later.

Hasn’t there been an inquiry?

In the absence of an official government inquiry, an independent inquiry was set up in 2007 by Lord Morris of Manchester and chaired by the former solicitor general Lord Archer. It took two years, holding public hearings that proved highly emotional as people told of wrecked lives, financial distress and the deaths of loved ones. Government ministers were strongly criticised for refusing to give evidence. Lord Owen, a health minister in the 1970s, said he was dismayed by the destruction of documents that could have explained what happened and who knew what at the time. Archer in his report in 2009 described the scandal as “a horrific human tragedy” and called on the government to negotiate a fairer compensation package for those who had suffered.

What has happened since?

Efforts by the families to uncover further evidence that the government or NHS knew the blood products put lives at risk have led to increasing pressure from MPs for a public inquiry. In November 2016, a motion passed in the Commons stated it was “one of the biggest treatment disasters in the history of the NHS”. In April this year, the Welsh assembly called for a UK government inquiry and Andy Burnham, former health minister, called the scandal a “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”.


Sarah Boseley Health editor

The GuardianTramp

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