Today, Monday 24 September 2018, marks day 1 of the preliminary hearings into the Inquiry set up to examine why men, women and children in the UK were given infected blood and/or infected blood products predominately in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The inquiry will focus on the impact on patients and their families; how the authorities (including government) responded; the nature of any support provided following infection; questions of consent; and whether there was a cover-up.
Sir Brian Langstaff, its chairman, vowed he would "put the people who have been infected and affected at its heart".
The Blood Scandal – a brief history
The story of the infected blood scandal often starts with haemophilia. This is a mostly inherited genetic disorder that impairs the body's ability to make blood clots, a process needed to stop bleeding. This results in people bleeding longer after an injury, easy bruising, and puts them at an increased risk of bleeding inside joints or the brain.
In the 1970’s a new treatment for haemophilia was made available known as Factor VIII. This was a clotting agent which limited the effect of haemophilia and meant that those suffering from the condition were less likely to suffer serious and prolonged bleeding allowing them to live more active lives. For many of the patients at the time, childhood haemophiliacs, the treatment meant the opportunity to be treated as an average child for the first time. The treatment was hailed as a significant breakthrough and was routinely offered on the NHS.
What the patients and their families didn’t know however was that the Factor VIII was being made with infected, imported blood products. Much of the plasma used to make Factor VIII was found to be from US prisoners and people in the USA who sold their blood. There were far less regulations in the USA regarding blood donation and it was often those on the fringe of society, prisoners, drug users and prostitutes who sold their blood.
As Factor VIII was made from plasma, a blood product, hundreds, often thousands of donations were being combined in order to produce the necessary amount of plasma to create the Factor VIII. It therefore took just one infected donor to contaminate the whole batch.
Sadly, the result was that those treated with the contaminated products contracted diseased such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. It has been estimated that more than 2,500 people have died as a result of receiving contaminated blood products during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
There have been repeated calls for an inquiry not only into how the contaminated products came to be provided, but whether any organisation ought to have taken responsibility and stopped the use of imported, potentially infected blood and blood products. It has been alleged that the risk of infected products finding their way into the supply chain for Factor VIII was known about for 3 years prior to the ban on use of such products.
The inquiry therefore has a relatedly broad scope to consider who those who were infected came to be infected, what the response was to the infections and whether there was any cover up.
Monday 24 September
Today marks day 1 of the preliminary hearing of the Inquiry. The Inquiry was announced in July 2017 and has been gathering evidence and witness statements. It is led by the Chair, Sir Brian Langstaff who has appointed expert groups to advise him in the relevant medical fields.
This morning will start with a commemoration, which has been designed by a group of volunteers from among the long-term campaigners working with a creative team. I anticipate this will be an emotional time for those involved. In the afternoon, there will be opening statements from Sir Brian Langstaff and Jenni Richards QC, Counsel to the Inquiry. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the legal representatives of core participants, as well as those core participants without legal representation, will make their opening statements. These hearings are not about providing evidence but are for core participants to outline their priorities and preferred approach for the Inquiry.
The scale of this Inquiry is huge. It is unlikely that it will start to hear oral evidence before Easter 2019. Ahead of those hearings, the Inquiry continue with its investigations and will be gathering a large number of witness statements and analysing a vast amount of documentation.
Today is a visible start of a process which has been running for decades. It is the culmination of years of campaigning by various groups.