Blood contamination

There’s something of a problem here:

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.

In the 70s we didn’t know about HIV. We didn’t identify Hep C until 1988 or so. Which is the problem here. It’s entirely possible that there was official mumbling and fumbling once things were known – we are not great fans of the idea of government efficiency around here. Compensation and treatment issues might also be a concern. For example, we do finally and recently have a reasonable, if horribly expensive, treatment for Hep C. Do they get it whatever the NHS says about costs?

But the basic problem here? A treatment was devised for haemophilia, no one knew the dangers, bad things happened. That basic problem, whatever the subsequent handling, isn’t actually anyone’s fault. It’s rather like Knightian Uncertainty in economics. Well, shit, that didn’t work, did it?

Yep, callous. But what should have been done differently? No, not with hindsight, but what should have been done with the knowledge at the time? Haemophilia left untreated?

22 thoughts on “Blood contamination”

  1. On the very same day!
    Mince meat, from about 100 cows, one of which might have a communicable infection, is better than steak.

  2. The Laughing Cavalier

    This has been public knowledge for decades. The scandal is not that it happened but that successive governments have refused to treat and compensate adequately those who were affected and infected.

  3. What TLC says – didn’t the French deal with this ten years ago? Laurent Fabius, no? The inquiry should be about the cover up, either instead of or in addition to the negligence in the first place.

  4. Bloke in North Dorset

    “But the basic problem here? A treatment was devised for haemophilia, no one knew the dangers, bad things happened. That basic problem, whatever the subsequent handling, isn’t actually anyone’s fault”

    You wouldn’t think so watching the BBC news last night. The underlying message was that it was all the fault of the evil Tories who’ve only agreed to the inquiry because they are a weak government.

  5. Hepatitis C virus had not been identified but nonAnonB hepatitis was known to be transmissible, ditto AIDS. If you know something you haven’t identified yet and so can’t test for, this makes using pooled serum from paid donors way riskier than using single donor serum. It was an economic not medical decision.

  6. Query: when they talk about “the late 70s” as being when the problem started, do they mean before or after May 1979? If before, then blaming only the Tories might be a bit difficult, though I’m sure some will try.

  7. HepC was known to exist long before 1988, just the causative agent wasn’t known.

    For factor concentrates, as is done now, you can minimise pooling to the individual dose rather than mix it all up in a big vat (which is cheaper). Because after HepC and HIV, while we don’t know what the next nasty blood-borne virus to rear its head will be, we can be reasonably certain there will be one, and that there will be a lag of possibly years between seeeing the first cases and finding out what it is, how it is transmitted, and how to minimise the risk of transmission.

    And obvious things like not paying junkies for blood. The restrictions are pretty wide-ranging now. Have you ever had sex with a prostitute, have you ever had sex with a local in Africa. In Germany, even Britons are barred from donating blood (mad cow disease).

  8. I’m very lucky to have escaped this – I’m not haemophiliac but was, for about nine years, just above the line below which I would have been treated with another human-derived drug.

  9. The reason successive governments kicked this can down the road is because they knew they would be blamed for it by the stupid, bovine herd, which is unable to recall events longer than a year ago without being spoon fed them by the BBC.

  10. The key problem in France and Japan was the mid-to-late 80s when the problems with HIV became known but the blood products companies and the health bureaucracy conspired to cover it up to protect local blood product companies. In both cases bureaucrats went to jail.

  11. The Meissen Bison

    It that excerpt from the guardian is accurate, it looks as though the drug manufacturers had inadequate quality controls of their upstream supply chain.

  12. BiG

    The solution for HIV and Hep C was heat treatment for the blood products. The issue in France and Japan was that the local manufacturers were unable to produce heat treated blood factor products for several years after the Americans and they prevented the banning of the infected untreated product.

    Also preventing the importation of “paid for” blood is an important factor.

  13. The politicians (Fabius was one of them) in France were found responsible but not guilty “responsable mais pas coupable”.


  14. “The solution for HIV and Hep C was heat treatment for the blood products.”

    I don’t claim any particular knowledge but I remember talking to an official from the Department of Health in the 1980s who said heat treatment of blood gives you black pudding.

  15. Why heat treatment? Shouldn’t irradiation do the trick? Would it have had deleterious effects on other blood components?

  16. In the wayback, the U.S. state of Arkansas (under Bill Clinton as Governor) sold considerable quantities of blood taken from penitentiary inmates and known to be contaminated (and, therefore, unsalable in the U.S.) to Canada.

  17. ‘Efforts by the families to uncover further evidence that the government or NHS knew the blood products put lives at risk’

    Uhhh . . . you don’t get a transfusion unless your life is at risk.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. FDA has relaxed guidelines on accepting blood donations from MSM, men who have had sex with other man.

  18. @ to be
    I remembered that Canada (or the Red Cross, who handled blood donations and distribution back then) had bought tainted blood from Arkansas, but until your comment I hadn’t mad the connection that Clinton had been on the other side of the sale. It’s a bit of a personal issue for me, as my father eventually died from Hep-C, likely contracted from transfusions during open-heart surgery in the mid-seventies. Of course, without the transfusions they couldn’t have done the surgery that saved his life…

  19. The issue began before 1979, David Owen as health minister tried to stop blood imports, but was overruled on cost grounds.

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