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How did US prisoner blood infect thousands in the UK? Northeastern experts unpack the scandal

Northeastern experts explain the legal, social and medical repercussions of a scandal that saw 30,000 people infected and 3,000 die after being given contaminated blood.

Protestors assembled at Parliament Square carrying signs and wearing red t-shirts.
A damning report was published this week setting out how thousands in Britain were given infected blood. Photo by Joao Daniel Pereira/Sipa USA via AP Images

LONDON — Perry Evans was a sport-loving young man who relished the odd daredevil feat such as parachute jumping.

But in 1985, at age 27, he was told that, following a standard treatment for hemophilia — a blood clot-preventing condition he was diagnosed with while still a baby — he had tested positive for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and potentially had just two years to live.

Five years later, there was worsening health news — he was told he also had hepatitis C.

Evans was one of more than 30,000 victims of what is known as the contaminated blood scandal when infected blood, most of it imported from the U.S., was given to people in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s. Close to 3,000 people are thought to have since died as a result of infected treatments and contaminated blood transfusions.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, following the publication of a damning report by the independent five-year Infected Blood Inquiry, said he was “truly sorry” for the “decades-long moral failure” victims had suffered.

Chairman Brian Langstaff, a former senior appeal judge, said victims had been failed “not once but repeatedly” by doctors, the National Health Service (NHS), government and others responsible for their safety.

Evans did not hear that condemnation — he had died five weeks before, at age 62, having defied the odds of his illnesses for decades.

Lisa Collingwood, an associate professor in law at Northeastern University in London, said the inquiry’s statutory footing should expedite justice, including compensation payments, for victims like Evans and their families.

The U.K. government has made interim payouts of £100,000 ($127,000) each to about 4,000 survivors and bereaved partners, with another £210,000 ($267,000) interim payment to follow this summer before a fuller compensation plan is produced.

“This outcome will make justice swifter,” Collingwood said. “In his statement, Rishi Sunak said there would be compensation ‘by any means.’ The implication there is that there will be swift payouts, but unfortunately, the thing there is, what can money compensate if someone’s loved one has passed? It is devastating.”

One of the victims put forward that they felt that the dragging on and lack of responsibility and action on this actually made them feel as if their life was expendable

Sara Raimondi, an associate professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern in London

The statutory footing of the inquiry does at least spare victims and their families a laborious legal battle for compensation, the law expert pointed out.

“If the outcome of the inquiry had not been what it was,” Collingwood said, “the families, the loved ones would be left with having to go down the tortious civil route. That means suing privately and that can take years. 

“At one point, it looked like certain people would have to go down the route of doing this civilly, privately. Now this inquiry has come, you can get compensation as long as you can prove you were affected — that makes it much more straightforward, and rightly so.”

People with hemophilia were particularly impacted by the infected blood scandal. In the 1970s, many of them were undergoing a treatment that used donated human blood plasma to top-up the Factor VIII and Factor IX clotting agents that they were running low on.

The NHS at the time was struggling to meet the demand for blood-clotting treatment so began importing it from abroad, including from the U.S., where high-risk donors, such as prisoners and drug addicts, were being paid to give blood. 

Jean McGuire, professor of the practice in public health and health sciences at Northeastern University, said being paid for blood donations was an “economic strategy for a lot of people that have marginal lives” in the U.S.

Factor VIII was made by pooling plasma from tens of thousands of donors. The issue was that, even if only one donor had an illness such as HIV, it could infect a whole bag of blood when it was pooled.

“Pooling up blood that included everything from prisoners to people on the streets facilitated the distribution of the diseases,” said McGuire, who formerly ran the major U.S. lobbying group AIDS Action Council in the late 1980s. “However, even if you didn’t pool the blood, you would still have that risk if you didn’t have the capability to screen it all.”

The problem of infected blood donations more generally began to dissipate as knowledge grew about diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C, allowing for tests to be created, she explained.

The industry was then regulated to ensure that testing occurs at multiple stages of the blood handling chain, including at the processing and treatment level, as well as at the moment the donation was given.

But even though improvements were made, administering contaminated blood can have a long-term detrimental impact on public trust, said McGuire, who previously served as assistant commissioner for public health in Massachusetts for five years.

“One of the remarkable things, frankly, is how quickly we produced a test, and how quickly we then did clean up the blood supply,” she said. “But then there was a long, lingering tail of concern where people felt like, ‘How do I even trust that blood supply?’ or ‘How do I even trust government?’”

Sara Raimondi, an associate professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern in London, said scandals like these raise wider questions about the competence of those in public bodies and leadership positions.

It took until the end of 1985 in the U.K. to heat-treat blood products so as to eliminate HIV, despite the risks being known three years prior. Domestic blood donations were not routinely screened for hepatitis C until 1991, 18 months after the virus was first identified.

In his conclusion to the inquiry, Langstaff said the scandal was “not an accident.” The chairman said the truth about what had happened had often been hidden from victims and there had been a lack of accountability, with elements of “downright deception,” including the destruction of documents.

And while the scandal helped to fuel a breakdown in public trust, Raimondi said the treatment of victims, including the cover-ups and dragged-out wait for justice, played a part in them losing their sense of worth.

Campaigners were dismayed this week when they were forced to seek clarification that Sunak’s decision to call a surprise general election for July 4 on Wednesday, coming only two days after his fulsome apology, would not delay compensation any further.

In his evidence to the inquiry before he died, Evans spoke about enjoying playing cricket before his HIV diagnosis and said he felt as “fit as a fiddle.”

Being supplied with contaminated blood wrecked that and interfered with almost every aspect of his life, he said, declaring that doctors attempted to warn his wife from initially marrying him, while medically he suffered a lifetime of chest infections, pneumonias and “horrenous” side effects from experimental drugs.

Evans never heard justice announced in his lifetime, while others had to fight tooth-and-nail for the inquiry to be commissioned.

“One of the victims put forward that they felt that the dragging on and lack of responsibility and action on this actually made them feel as if their life was expendable,” Raimondi said. “I think that is very crucial as to how citizens can stop feeling that sense of trust.

“These very complex affairs like that we have seen with the contaminated blood scandal can harm the ability for people to feel like valued citizens, especially if they rely on public bodies and governments to fulfill their dreams, hopes and chances in life.”