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U.K. Report Examines Contaminated Blood Products That Spread HIV in 1970s, 1980s

February 24, 2009

An independent report released on Monday examines the use of contaminated blood products in the United Kingdom's National Health Service during the 1970s and 1980s, which spread HIV, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases, the New York Times reports. Peter Archer, a House of Lords member and former solicitor general, conducted the study over a two-year period. The report called the use of contaminated blood a "horrific human tragedy" and "the worst treatment disaster" in NHS' 60-year history (Burns, New York Times, 2/24).

For the study, researchers gathered evidence from more than 60 witnesses, including many people who received the contaminated blood products and their families. The team also studied more than 20,000 documents (Katz, AP/Google.com, 2/23). In their 113-page report, the researchers noted that 4,670 hemophiliacs contracted hepatitis C through blood transfusions during the late 1970s and early 1980s and that 1,243 of those people also contracted HIV (Lister, Times, 2/24). Of the people who contracted both HIV and hepatitis C, about 800 have died. As of February 2007, when the researchers initiated the study, 1,757 people had died as a result of the contaminated blood products (Boseley, Guardian, 2/23).

According to the study, NHS was "lethargic" in obtaining blood products and took 13 years to reach self-sufficiency. In the meantime, NHS purchased blood products -- such as the clotting protein Factor VIII -- from U.S. suppliers who obtained blood supplies from prison inmates and other high-risk groups (Lister, Times, 2/24). The report said that NHS' "procrastination" in obtaining sufficient blood products "had disastrous consequences," adding, "Had self-sufficiency been achieved earlier, the scale of the catastrophe would have been significantly reduced" (Reuters U.K., 2/23). The researchers said it was difficult to determine whether these actions stemmed from "over-hesitant scientific advice" or a "sluggish response by government;" however, they added, "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that commercial interests took precedence over public health concerns." The report concluded, "Commercial priorities should never again override the interests of public health."

According to Archer, the report does not blame specific individuals or groups but suggests that ministers could apologize to survivors and their families. The report also recommends that the government provide compensation payments in amounts at least comparable to Ireland's compensation program. In Ireland, those who contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood products received about 750,000 pounds -- or about $1,087,000 -- and those who contracted HIV received up to 101,000 pounds -- or about $146,000 (Lister, Times, 2/24). According to the report, the government also should provide no-cost prescription drugs, physician visits, counseling, physical therapy and home nursing for survivors. The report did not propose that criminal charges be brought (AP/Google.com, 2/23). Chris James, chief executive of the Haemophilia Society, also urged the government to provide compensation, insurance and full health care to survivors, as well as to establish a National Hemophilia Committee to help patients participate in their own treatment. "There are vital lessons to be learned in ensuring that decisions are made in an open and transparent way that fully involves patients," he said (Guardian, 2/23).

According to the Times, Archer's study cost 75,000 pounds, or about $109,000, and was financed with private funds (Lister, Times, 2/24). The study is the first detailed probe of the U.K.'s contaminated blood products, the AP/Google.com reports. The British government in the past has called such inquiries unnecessary, and the "political impact of" the report is "likely to be blunted by time," according to the AP/Google.com (AP/Google.com, 2/23). James said the British government over several years has "shamefully refused to fund a public inquiry, and an independent inquiry held in public was the only way forward if the voices of those infected and the bereaved were ever to be heard." According to the Guardian, some advocates believe it will be difficult for the government to dismiss the report because respected public officials conducted the independent investigation (Guardian, 2/23).

According to a spokesperson from the U.K.'s Department of Health, the agency will study Archer's report in detail before responding to the findings. The spokesperson said the department has "great sympathy for the patients and families affected by contaminated blood products," adding that "[s]teps to safeguard blood products against HIV and hepatitis C have been in place since 1985" (Lister, Times, 2/24).

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