United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May announced yesterday that her nation’s government will conduct an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal that killed an estimated 2,400 people in the country and left countless others terminally ill.
The scandal dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when hemophilia patients from the UK were given manufactured injected medications from the U.S. and other countries designed to stop uncontrolled bleeding. The problem: these anti-hemophilia medications were infected with hepatitis C, which causes liver damage and can be fatal, and HIV, which causes AIDS.
How Anti-Hemophilia Medications Were Infected with Hepatitis C and HIV
In the 1970s, hemophilia patients were given clotting factors (proteins that hemophiliacs need to control bleeding) to treat their symptoms. During this time, drug companies discovered they could extract the protein clotting factors (known as “Factor VIII” or “Factor IX”) from blood plasma by a multi-step process, then freeze-dry the product to be sold as medication known as an anti-hemophilia factor or “AHF.”
Needing access to a substantial supply of blood, drug companies paid for plasma donations, then pooled thousands of donations into vats to make a variety of products, including anti-hemophilia medications.
Among those paid by drug companies to give blood, were male prisoners in the U.S. who were more likely to be high-risk for transmitting blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis C and HIV. With all of the donations mixed together in vats, the chances of contamination increased dramatically, as even a tiny number of infected donors could contaminate an entire batch.
Fallout from the Tainted Blood Scandal
As a result of the scandal, an estimated 4,800 people in the UK were infected with hepatitis C. Of that total, 1,200 were also infected with HIV.
According to the Guardian, officials at the UK Department of Health allegedly knew or suspected that imported anti-hemophilia medications were contaminated as early as 1983. Yet National Health Service (NHS) officials continued to administer the medications, even after learning about the possible contamination.
Families of those affected by the scandal put pressure on the UK government for decades to look into the matter. Earlier this year, former health minister Andy Burnham called the scandal a “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale.”
On Tuesday, Theresa May announced the inquiry after several political leaders signed a letter calling for a fresh investigation to include allegations of a cover-up. May said the inquiry will attempt to “establish the cause of this appalling injustice.” She added, “the victims and their families who have suffered so much pain and hardship deserve answers as to how this could possibly have happened.”
Other Countries Faced Similar Contaminated Blood Scandals
The contaminated blood scandal isn’t unique to the UK. Thousands of hemophiliacs from all over the world were infected with tainted blood products during the same time period.
In the U.S., as many as 10,000 hemophiliacs may have been infected with HIV. The U.S. scandal led to a number of different court cases against the manufacturers of the contaminated blood products, including Alpha Therapeutic Corporation; Institut Mérieux (now Sanofi); Armour Pharmaceutical Co; Bayer Corporation and its Cutter Biological division; and Baxter International and its Hyland Pharmaceutical division.
Michael Baum, a managing shareholder at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, represented hemophiliacs in the U.S. and in Taiwan in the wake of the contaminated blood scandal.
“Through years of litigating and document scanning, our firm amassed a comprehensive million-document database that included manufacturers’ internal memoranda, anti-hemophilia medication lot records, and key witness depositions which expose manufacturers’ liability for distributing HIV-contaminated products,” says Baum. His law firm was among a group of lawyers who settled over 100 hemophilia AIDS cases in 2001 after four years of litigation. These cases were not part of the 6,000 or so hemophilia AIDS cases that settled in 1996.
“These drug companies needed a return on their investment. They paid plasma donors, paid to process the plasma, paid to package the product and ship it out all over the world. But they knew that they sourced plasma from unhealthy donors, and they knew that the product was processed in such a way that contamination was almost a foregone conclusion.”
As for his thoughts on the UK contaminated blood scandal inquiry, Baum simply said, “it’s about time.”
Mr. Baum’s law firm created one of the most effective and precise tracking systems in the world to trace specific AHF lots back through the manufacturing process to source plasma. His team determined that the contaminated plasma was collected from unhealthy high-risk donors such as prison inmates, intravenous drug users, promiscuous urban homosexuals and probably the most lethal plasma in the world at the time, recovered plasma from STD clinics in San Francisco, West Hollywood, and New York City, among others. Rather than just collecting plasma from the required “normal healthy donors,” AHF manufacturers included this high-risk plasma to make multiple products out of the same vats, such as Hepatitis B Immune Globulin (HBIG), general Immune Globulins (IG) as well as AHF. Drug companies needed high-risk donors’ plasma in the vats because they were in communities where hepatitis B was rampant, so they had an elevated hepatitis B virus (HBV) antibodies. The drug companies needed those antibodies in high quantities in the plasma vats to justify selling immune globulins at a high price. This product was very profitable. Unfortunately, those donors with high hepatitis B antibodies lived among communities where HIV was most prevalent. Hemophiliacs were essentially sharing needles with donors at the highest risk of being HIV infected. And that’s how AIDS crossed over from what was originally described as “gay-related immune deficiency” to hemophiliacs, infecting most of that generation’s hemophiliacs with HIV.
Over the years, representatives from several countries have contacted Mr. Baum to enlighten them about the US-made HIV-contaminated medications, including officials from Taiwan’s Ministry of Health invited Mr. Baum to meet with them and present evidence of the fraud to their hemophilia community. Mr. Baum was able to show them documented evidence that the U.S. manufacturers of hemophilia medication were, in fact, committing fraud on Taiwan by knowingly urging doctors to prescribe HIV contaminated medication to their hemophilia community.
Factor 8 Organization for Those Affected by Infected Blood Products
Factor 8 is a non-profit advocacy organization working on behalf of victims and families affected by HIV, AIDS, and hepatitis via the use of Contaminated Factor Concentrate products in the 1970s and 1980s. All of the individuals directly involved in running Factor 8 are affected by the scandal. The organization is a place where those infected and affected can not only receive updates, advice, and information but also support through the victim and bereaved family forums.