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Medical Negligence

Tens of thousands could be living with deadly blood virus due to NHS scandal

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Alice Sanderson, September 28, 2018

Tens of thousands of Britons could be unaware that they were treated with contaminated blood decades ago, and may now be living with a potentially deadly virus, an inquiry heard this week.

The Infected Blood Inquiry is holding preliminary hearings this week before first evidence is heard in April, where the enquiry is expected to last at least 15 months.

It is looking into what has been described as ‘the worst treatment disaster in NHS history’, where thousands of patients were treated with contaminated blood.

Around 5,000 people were infected with hepatitis C or HIV during routine treatments as children in the 1970s and 80s. More than 2,500 are known to have died as a result.

Blood from drug addicts and prisoners

Contaminated blood products from the US, where drug addicts and prisoners were paid to donate, were used in the treatment of haemophiliacs, or when giving transfusions after childbirth or accidents.

Many were only informed years later having infected partners or their own children.

Blood products began to be heat-treated to kill viruses in the mid-1980s, but questions have been asked on how much was known before this, and why screening of blood products did not begin until 1991.

‘Death sentence’

One victim, Michelle Tolley, a mother of four, was given a blood transfusion after childbirth in 1987. She didn’t find out until 2015 that she had hepatitis C and said: ”I feel like every day I wake up with a death sentence hanging over my head.”

Survivors talked of watching their partners or children die. While others lost careers, marriages and faced social stigma due to their diseases.

The inquiry is the largest of its kind, with more than 1,200 affected people registered as ‘core participants’. More than 100,000 documents having already been received, and many more are expected.

Although there have previously been inquiries into this scandal, this is the first UK-wide inquiry where witnesses are compelled to testify.

Government ‘cover up’

The government have been criticised for dragging their heels on the inquiry, with former health secretary Andy Burnham calling it a "criminal cover-up on an industrial scale", while speaking in the House of Commons last year.

It follows years of campaigning from victims, who say that the scandal was covered up, and the risks were never explained to them when they underwent treatment.

The inquiry is expected to hear from former health secretaries and senior civil servants. There is also pressure on the former prime minister, Sir John Major, to give evidence.

Comments

Sir Brian Langstaff, the inquiry’s chairman, said: “It is a truly sobering thought that if some claims are well-founded — and it will be for this inquiry to find out if they are — there may yet be many thousands more who do not feel well, but have not yet been told that the reason is that they suffer from hepatitis C . . . The consequences of what happened then may be continuing to cause death even now.”

Jenni Richards QC, counsel to the inquiry, said it would aim to ascertain "the true numbers of those infected".

Sir Brian said that some estimates "go far beyond 25,000" and there was a real chance that these "may prove right".

Liz Carroll, chief executive of The Haemophilia Society, called on the inquiry to work diligently to "uncover the truth, bring justice and ultimately closure for victims and their families".

She commented: "This scandal devastated generations of people with haemophilia and other bleeding disorders. Our members have waited decades for this to be properly investigated."