Department of Health Faces Legal Action Over Contaminated Blood

31 Oct 2017

Table of Contents

Factor VIII and contaminated blood

During the 1970s patients with the blood-clotting disorder haemophilia were given ‘factor concentrates’ in order to relieve their symptoms, which included severe pain and organ damage. People with haemophilia lack the proteins Factor VIII and Factor IX which enable the body to clot blood and pharmaceutical companies had managed to develop a revolutionary new treatment which consisted of taking these clotting factors out of blood plasma and freeze drying them into a powder (the so called factor concentrates). There were thousands of NHS patients in the UK who were suffering from haemophilia and therefore demand for treatment (blood transfusions) using the ‘factor concentrates’ was extremely high.

As a result of the increasing demand drug companies in the United States, who were supplying these medications to the NHS, needed an increasing supply of blood. They paid donors to donate blood and they started to use Factor VIII from blood plasma which had been donated from high risk sources including prisoners and intravenous drug users. Many of these donors were infected with the HIV virus and Hepatitis C.

Thousands of patients in the UK were treated using Factor VIII which had been sourced from these high risk donors and it is estimated that 4,800 patients were infected with Hepatitis C as a result. Of these 4,800 patients 1,200 were also infected with HIV, a virus which can cause Aids. In total, half of those affected (2,400 patients) have now died.

Department of Health Knowledge

 As early as the late 1950s blood products which were used to treat haemophilia were known to cause viral infections. Many experts had issued warnings about the risks of mass pooled blood products however their concerns were ignored. When factor concentrates were introduced in the 1970s the government was aware that blood was being sourced from dubious places and the risks that this posed to patient safety. Such knowledge led to the then Secretary of State for Health, Dr, David Owen, pledging to invest millions of pounds so that the “UK [could] become self-sufficient and blood would then come only from British sources and would be much more likely to not be contaminated”. However this money was never invested and was instead diverted to other areas.

As a result of the use of these products British patients began to become infected by Hepatitis C and the HIV virus. In some cases spouses, partners and loved ones of haemophiliacs also became infected.

In 1991 the British Government made ex-gratia payments to those patients who had become infected with HIV but these payments were made on the condition that those receiving them signed undertakings not to take any further action against the government in respect of this issue. However the undertakings were obtained on the basis of incomplete information, as shortly afterwards it emerged that these same people had also been infected with Hepatitis C, and that such information had only been released to them after they had signed the undertakings.

It is estimated that since 1991 there has been a death rate of at least one person a month as a result of this scandal, and of the patients who were infected with both Hepatitis and HIV, only 250 survive today. Campaigners have been calling for a public inquiry into this issue for decades and in 2017 Theresa May pledged to hold an inquiry. However at the first consultation meeting no victims attended and none of the key campaign groups attended, because of their concerns about the involvement of the Department of Health.

Legal Action

In the context of growing public awareness of the seriousness of this issue, together with the lack of progress in respect of the government inquiry, victims and their families have begun taking steps towards issuing legal proceedings against the government. The Claimants in these cases will allege that the Department of Health failed in its duty to take reasonable care to prevent injury or loss to NHS patients when these products were imported into the UK to be used in NHS hospitals. They will also allege that the Department failed to inform those patients who had become infected in a prompt and timely manner.

A Group Litigation Order (GLO) has recently been granted by the High Court which allows those affected to join together and claim compensation from the government. It has been reported that 500 victims have already signed up to the GLO and with as many as 4,500 people having been affected by this scandal many more Claimants could yet join the action.

At Osbornes Law we care about how you are treated both by medical professionals at hospital and also under the care of private providers of health services. If you or someone in your family has been affected by the blood contamination scandal, then please do not hesitate to contact Partner and specialist medical negligence lawyer Stephanie Prior on 020 7681 8671.

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