The long-awaited independent public inquiry into the United Kingdom’s (UK) tainted blood scandal has exposed documents revealing that, as early as the 1970s, the UK Department of Health was aware of the increased risk of hepatitis C in blood products originating from US pharmaceutical companies.
Advocates, including the London-based Haemophilia Society, have been pushing for an investigation into the circumstances that contributed to the proliferation of HIV and hepatitis C-contaminated blood and blood products in the UK. From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, more than 5,000 people with hemophilia in the UK were infected with these viruses, resulting in 1,757 deaths, while thousands more are living with HIV and hepatitis C. The contaminated blood products were distributed by the UK’s National Health Service.
The inquiry, which began in April 2007, has elicited some 5,000 blood safety-related documents previously thought to be destroyed by the UK government. Among the "resurfaced" documents are minutes from a February 1979 meeting of the Medical Research Council which indicate concern about the continued use of commercial plasma products, many of which were manufactured in the U.S. and known to carry an increased risk of transmitting "non A, non B hepatitis" (now known as hepatitis C.)
In 1983, the UK health department was also alerted to the threat HIV posed to U.S. plasma-derived products. A May 9, 1983 letter written by Dr Spence Galbraith, then head of the communicable disease surveillance centre at the Public Health Laboratory Service, to the Department of Health and Social Security, advocated that "all blood products made from blood donated in the US after 1978 should be withdrawn from use until the risk of AIDS transmission by these products has been clarified." The CSM considered but ultimately rejected his recommendation out of concern that it would lead to a shortfall in factor supply. British people with hemophilia were not told of the risks.
Proponents of the inquiry, including affected hemophilia community members in the UK, assert that there was clear evidence at the time that U.S. products were more susceptible to contamination. They point to the then-common U.S. practice of paying repeat blood donors, including ones from high-risk groups such as prisoners, and the process of fractionation, which pools plasma from thousands of donors, increasing the risk that a significant amount of blood product would remain contaminated.
"In 1983, the government and medical profession brushed aside the fact that haemophiliacs were dying from AIDS. The alarm bells should have been ringing," said Carol Grayson, head of the advocacy group Haemophilia Action U, whose husband died in 2005 from complications from HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. "But those responsible for patient safety at the CSM meeting decided that 'the benefits of this treatment outweighed the risk' and in doing so condemned many patients to a death sentence."
For their part, the UK government explained that health officials at the time were acting in good faith and that these disclosures should be considered in the appropriate light. "HIV was not the problem then that we now know it is and hepatitis C didn’t even have a name. It has to be seen in that context," said a Department of Health spokeswoman.
The inquiry, led by Lord Archer of Sandwell, will continue as the government confirms it will continue to release documents. Oral hearings will resume on July 11, 2007.
Source: The Guardian, May 25th and 26th, 2007