Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Blood Money promised, then postponed.

 THOUGH left-wing politicians like Jeremy Corbyn are often accused by right-wing opponents and media of wanting a return to "the 1970s and 1980s" when supposedly unspeakable things were done by trade unions (such as raising wages), not so much has been said about a real major scandal from that period whose effects are being perpetuated. 

 Thousands of National Health Service patients were inadvertently given contaminated blood products in one of the biggest treatment disasters ever. It is estimated that more than 2,000 people died as a result of the contaminated blood, which infected them with deadly diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

In Britain, blood donations have always come from volunteers, and been routinely tested for infections. Between 1970 and 1991, against the advice of many experts, the NHS  imported blood products from overseas, particularly the United States and Canada, many supplied by drug companies that sourced blood by paying people in high-risk groups, such as prostitutes, vagrants and drug addicts, to donate it. In some US states the prison service made millions taking prisoners blood. In other places blood was taken from corpses, but the companies claimed it came from donors. The blood products imported to Britain were riddled with the blood-borne viruses hepatitis C and HIV.


These products were then administered without being screened for the viruses, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation. Patients were duly infected as a result. About 7,500 people, of whom roughly two-thirds were haemophiliacs, are now known to have been given hepatitis C during this period.

Perhaps the most famous victim of this health scandal, Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick was infected with hepatitis C by a blood transfusion after the birth of her daughter Sam in 1971. She died in 2007, aged 64, from a brain haemorrhage caused by the disease.

According to an estimate by MPs, who debated the scandal in January, as many as 35,000 victims could have hepatitis C, which is often undetected for years, without yet being aware of it. Around 1,500 of the 7,500 confirmed hepatitis victims have also contracted HIV. Many then unwittingly passed it to their partners.  In the Eighties, when most of these transmissions occurred, Aids was a virtual death sentence. Three-quarters of them died.
It does not end there. Many of those who faced terminal illness were forced into hardship by losing or having to give up their jobs, without being able to claim compensation from the governments who were responsible. Some had to turn to charities, but the process of obtaining help has not been easy.

Philip Wellman says his more than 40-year battle with Hepatitis C has reached “a tipping point” as he faces the winter without heating or electricity. He is unable to afford a plane ticket to see his wife, child and grandchildren in his hometown of Hampstead.

It comes after the 68-year-old was involved in a car crash in the early 1970s and became one of more than 5,000 given “killer blood” transfusions by the NHS.

The tainted batch, like many supplied to patients during the 1970s and 1980s, was imported by the Department of Health from US pharmaceutical companies due to supply shortages.

A recent privately-funded inquiry, led by the government’s former solicitor general Lord Peter Archer, found many batches of this blood came from drug addicts, sex workers and other criminals incarcerated in US prisons. The practice continued, it was alleged, “long after alarms had been sounded”.

With the blood riddled with deadly viruses like Hepatitis C and HIV, more than 2,000 of the infected are said to have since died as a result.

Many were infected at the Royal Free Hospital’s haemophiliac centre in Hampstead and the affair has been branded by MPs as “the last major, unclosed government scandal”.

As campaigners continue to accuse the government of an “enormous cover-up”, Mr Wellman says he is hoping David Cameron will “do the right thing” and give survivors proper compensation.

He told the Ham&High: “What the government did to us, and what they’re still doing to us, is horrendous – people would be in disbelief if they knew the story.

In May 1983, researchers warned the Department of Health that it should ban U.S. imports of blood-clotting agents. The warning was never followed up.In August that year, the first recorded haemophiliac died from Aids. Yet countless patients continued to be infected. Although the U.S. finally banned prison blood in 1984, exports were allowed to continue and, incredibly, the NHS continued to buy it.

Even though safer, heat-treated products were introduced in the late Eighties, some doctors continued to use up old, contaminated supplies first. Hundreds more people died as a result. By the time Britain started to screen blood properly in 1991, at least 16 other countries were doing so. In some action was taken over officials and ministers who had allowed unsafe blood imports, whereas here there was not even a public inquiry,  When a privately funded one was set up in 2007, the Department of Health withheld vital papers and would not co-operate. Caroline Flint, then Public Health Minister, claimed  key documents detailing the contaminated blood scandal had been destroyed ‘in error’ by a junior member of staff. Caroline Flint is currently standing for deputy leadership of the Labour Party.
An investigation was launched by the Scottish government in 2008. under Lord Penrose, the head of court at Heriot Watt university.  It cost almost £12 million and ran to 1,800 pages. when it was published in March. Penrose did not apportion any blame and made just one recommendation: that people who felt at risk should be tested for hepatitis. He said Malcolm Rifkind could have launched screening when he was Minister for Scotland, but had stuck to a UK timetable. Rifkind is today director of a company which won a major NHS contract in Staffordshire despite bidding over the in-house price.

Lord Penrose said bungling officials should be judged ‘by conditions that prevailed at the time’ rather than by today’s standards. , The inquiry was  dubbed a ‘whitewash’ by campaigners, who walked out of its unveiling and burnt a copy in front of TV crews.

Prime Minister David Cameron apologised to those who had suffered because of the contaminated blood scandal,and promised that the government would make an extra £25 million available to help victims.

But that was before the general election.

It now transpires that this money will not come until next year, at the earliest, and it is to come from existing NHS funds  - in other words the Tories will generously rob Peter from one part of the service to pay Paul -if Paul is still alive.

The government says it wants to consult those affected. But the Haemophilia Society says it has written three times to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and been blanked. (Cash barrier, Private Eye No.1398, August 7-20).

Bill Wright, chair of Haemophilia Scotland, who was himself infected with hepatitis C through contaminated blood products, said there was “real anger” around the delay to the promised funds.
He added: “We have been betrayed on this issue over decades and it is no surprise the UK government is betraying us yet again.

As with past treatment of asbestosis victims, or raising the pension age, the suspicion is that by delaying payment as long as possible, the numbers who die in the intervening period will reduce the costs. And while some bitterly say they cannot afford to bury partners or relatives,  the government may be hoping it can bury the issue away from public sight.

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