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Life-saver turned killer: How infected blood caused biggest British treatment disaster

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Little did the British government know that a change in policy to import blood products from the United States would lead to thousands of deaths and families devastated for decades.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration allowed blood products made in the US to become available to treat haemophiliacs in the United Kingdom.

Contaminated blood scandal in the UK
Americans giving blood in the 1970s when insufficient safeguards were in place. A still from Bad Blood

Despite assurances that the product called Factor 8 was safe, the imports from America were contaminated with hepatitis C and HIV. Each dose of Factor 8 came from thousands of US blood donors, but inadequate screening meant blood from high-risk populations, including prisoners and drug addicts, was used in its production.

The patients self-administered Factor 8 to stop them having dangerous internal bleeding, as their blood doesn’t have the necessary chemicals to clot. What these people never realised was they were injecting themselves with deadly hepatitis and HIV, and over the years, as many as 2,000 UK haemophiliacs have died as a result of the treatment.

A Brit man, Martin Beard, became HIV positive after receiving contaminated Factor 8
Martin Beard is HIV positive after receiving contaminated Factor 8 to control his haemophilia. A still from Bad Blood

Martin Beard is one of the haemophiliacs who viewed Factor 8 as a life-saver. It eventually turned into a death sentence. He had no idea he was at risk when he started injecting regularly. Unbeknownst to him, doctors were testing for hepatitis C and HIV. It was years later that he discovered the dangers involved, and that he was diagnosed with HIV long before he was ever told of them.

Knowing he was HIV positive at the height of the AIDS scare turned his life upside down. He could not live with the thought of infecting others, so he broke up with his girlfriend at the time, and has never married. Even his friends shunned him because of their ignorance of his condition.

Richard Warwick British haemophiliac contracted HIV from infected treatment
Richard Warwick has to take a cocktail of drugs to combat his haemophilia and the HIV infection from tainted blood products. A still from Bad Blood

Richard Warwick is another victim of the infected Factor 8. He and his wife Tina have chosen not to have children, concerned they may pass the disease to another generation. Richard went to an exclusive boarding school for children with medical needs such as haemophilia. Most of his class were given infected Factor 8, and are now dead. Richard finds it challenging to come to terms that his old school friends are gone, but he’s still alive.

Richard, Martin, and others have been fighting for their situation to be recognised, and for accountability over the way the government handled the scandal.

Jason Evans Factor 8 organization
Jason Evans as a child with his father John in happier times. A still from Bad Blood

Jason Evans leads the Factor 8 pressure group. His father, John, was one of those infected. Jason has precious memories of growing up with his dad, and also the memory of this downward spiral when AIDS took over, leading to his eventual death.

The group has been campaigning for the government to admit its mistakes, and bring some accountability to the ministers and bureaucrats who introduced the tainted blood products into the UK as a cost-cutting exercise.

2019 Infected Blood Inquiry hearings start in the UK
Haemophiliacs and their families arrive for the start of the 2019 Infected Blood Inquiry in London. A still from Bad Blood

Eventually, early in 2019, a public inquiry was convened to investigate the impact of the blood products scandal on British haemophiliacs and their families. The evidence given to the inquiry was harrowing, with family members taking the place of haemophiliacs who died in the intervening years. Lawyers for the families and those infected do not expect the same outcome as in other countries.

In France, there have been criminal prosecutions over the blood scandal. However, in Britain the lawyers suggest the Crown Prosecution Service would be reluctant to go ahead with criminal cases, as they would likely be successful, and that would seriously undermine trust in the government and health services.

All there is left for the hundreds of haemophiliacs still living with the stigma of being infected with tainted blood is to support each other as their numbers dwindle with each passing year.