Tens of thousands infected with Hepatitis C and HIV in UK blood contamination scandal

The results of an inquiry confirmed that around 30,000 people in the United Kingdom received Hepatitis C and HIV-infected transfusions between 1970 and 1991

May 24, 2024 by Peoples Health Dispatch

A state inquiry has confirmed that, between 1970 and 1991, around 30,000 people in the United Kingdom received transfusions or blood clotting products infected with Hepatitis C and HIV. Many died as a result, and thousands more, along with their families, were neglected by all administrations and executive levels of the National Health Service (NHS).

With the report published, survivors and the next of kin to those who died should be guaranteed reparations – a promise made by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. However, financial compensation is unlikely to erase decades of suffering, misdiagnosis, and disinformation from the very institutions meant to protect public health.

Brian Langstaff, chair of the inquiry, described the scandal as a series of “systemic, collective, and individual failures.” These failures persisted even after health officials and governments became aware of the risks associated with using untested blood and blood products. In the 1970s, approximately 50% of Britain’s blood supply was imported.

A significant portion of these imports came from the United States, where blood and plasma donations are commercialized and thus subject to less stringent controls than in countries with publicly administered systems. This US framework meant that blood and plasma were sourced from communities who face high health risks themselves, including prisoners, and exported for profit, not health.

UK authorities did little to compensate for the lack of testing once these products reached Britain. Worse, once it became apparent that some supplies were contaminated, there was no effort to address the crisis. In 1989, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher claimed that patients had received the best treatment available.

Some health experts echoed Thatcher in their practice, dismissing patients’ concerns about deteriorating health. According to the Hepatitis C Trust, women make up 64% of those who were given infected transfusions, primarily after childbirth. When these women reported symptoms such as liver problems to their doctors, they were often incorrectly blamed on alcohol consumption – even if they had stopped drinking entirely.

This misdiagnosis meant that many patients were left undiagnosed for years, sometimes decades, exacerbating their health issues. In some cases, unaware of their Hepatitis C infection, women donated blood and potentially infected others. One survivor told the PA news agency that she was so grateful for the blood donations she received after giving birth that she became a donor herself. “Of course it wasn’t checked back then, so I have unwittingly infected other people,” she said, adding that she thinks about it all the time.

The report concluded that there was indeed a government cover-up, “not in the sense of an orchestrated conspiracy, but rather to save face and to save expense.” With the documentation now published, it appears neither was achieved. The only remaining option is to offer at least partial closure and support to those affected by the scandal.

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