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A scandal to get your blood up

Hot on the heels of the Post Office scandal – when hundreds of self-employed workers at the state-owned Post Office were wrongly prosecuted or convicted between 1999 and 2015 for false accounting, theft, and fraud because of a faulty software system – the scale of another travesty of justice has hit the headlines in the UK: The infected blood scandal.

British professor and scientist Lord Winston called it “the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS”.

But when just some of the bald facts of this sorry tale are laid bare, his words feel something of an understatement.

Between 1970 and the early 1990s, more than 30,000 NHS patients were given blood transfusions or treatments that used blood products that were contaminated with hepatitis C or HIV.

The most accurate estimates are that 3000 people have died as a result, while thousands live with ongoing health conditions.

As the report of the official inquiry explains, this “miserable” catalogue of death and intergenerational destruction and trauma was overseen by “systemic, collective and individual failures to deal ethically, appropriately, and quickly, with the risk of infections being transmitted in blood, with the infections when the risk materialised, and with the consequences for thousands of families”.

The UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, called the state’s response [or lack thereof] “a decades-long moral failure at the heart of our national life.”

One of Sunak’s solemn promises is to – finally – “pay comprehensive compensation to those infected and those affected by this scandal”.

Other countries that have made “amends” for the suffering meted out to those infected with blood products include Canada, Japan, Ireland, Scotland, and… New Zealand.

In 2006, Helen Clark’s government – finally – announced a “$30 million package to provide one-off payments to an estimated 550 people as part of a way forward for people who were infected with hepatitis C through the New Zealand blood supply”.

The New Zealand scandal first broke in 1992.

It shares many of the murky trademarks of Britain’s blood shame: the routine ‘pooling’ of plasma donations to create anticoagulant factors, a complex multinational blood product business, poor [or no] screening of those products, a seemingly casual disregard for protocols once screening was in place, and an institutional lethargy to respond to the pain and suffering caused.

For example, New Zealanders with haemophilia [a rare disorder in which the blood doesn’t clot in the typical way because it doesn’t have enough blood-clotting proteins] were receiving a clotting agent derived from blood products that were infected with hepatitis C after the country started screening for the virus.

Literal and figurative bloodlines were shown to exist between Aotearoa and Australia: Plasma from New Zealand was [and still is] sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in Melbourne for processing into the clotting agent, and then sent back to New Zealand.

According to Haemophilia New Zealand, the first ministerial settlement to be offered to people with haemophilia and hepatitis C in 2000 came with such strict criteria that it calculated only three people were able to prove their eligibility.

The blood scandal and the Post Office travesty show the fight for justice is clearly in our blood, but so too, sadly, is the urge to cover up and avoid accountability.

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