Tainted blood

Infected blood, the American filmmaker, and allegations of a government cover-up. William Hilderbran

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Kelly Duda spent eight years of his life making a documentary chronicling how thousands of people around the world were negligently infected with HIV and viral hepatitis from blood transfusions. The American filmmaker was in Westminster telling his story to the independent inquiry that aims to uncover the British government's part in a scandal that led to thousands of infections and deaths.

In the 1970s the British government began importing blood products in part sourced from American prisons in an attempt to cut costs and to tap into a larger blood bank.

However, patients were not informed of where the blood was coming from and tragically went on being 'treated' with the hepatits or HIV infected samples for more than two decades. Lord Robert Winston has dubbed the tragedy as "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".

Duda is a bit of a maverick. His flat American accent stood out at the inquiry but not as much as his character. Everything he does is infused with a sense of urgency and speed but juxtaposed by a slightly unnerving smirk. By the time he was done testifying to Lord Archer of Sandwell’s Inquiry, those in the audience who weren't familiar with his work had been swayed that the scandal was even worse than they realised - an idea that seemed impossible only one hour earlier.

David Fielding sat in the audience, already familiar with Duda he hoped the film-maker could instill more force into the inquiry. Fielding contracted Hepatitis C from the contaminated blood and his brother, who recently died of AIDS, had contracted HIV. He said Duda helped shine a light on the topic and reveal that it was more than just malpractice: "I don't think my brother was merely a victim. I don't think he just got sick. I think he was murdered."

This sentiment was common in the crowd of victims and family members who heard Duda reveal the origins of the contaminated blood. In his film Factor 8: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal, he explains how the Arkansas prison system was able to support itself entirely without taxpayer money and run at a profit due to its plasma programme experimentation.

Doctors harvested large quantities of plasma from inmates – that’s despite the fact prison populations are considered high-risk populations for disease infection - and sold them to pharmaceutical companies. The prisons made money by selling in such vast quantities, and the drug companies saved by paying far less since the blood was from less than desirable sources.

Duda claimed there was a culture of corruption embedded in the prisons as inmates were in charge of testing the products and had incentive to falsify results and increase prison profits.

Once the samples left the prison, tested or not, they were sent to drug companies. Then the samples were mixed and stirred in large vats before producing various plasma products.

All it takes is one infected sample of HIV or hepatitis to infect the lot. Duda said no one in the chain, from the moment the blood was extracted to when products were injected into patients, made proper efforts to prevent it being administered.

This blood was then shipped around the world - as far as South America and Japan, but throughout Europe as well. In the UK alone nearly 5,000 haemophiliacs contracted Hepatitis C, and 1,200 of these people were also infected with HIV. Nearly a thousand of these infected have already died without the government admitting any wrongdoing or even acknowledging a need to fund a public inquiry.

The victims think a public inquiry is a long-shot but many, it seems, would be happy with an apology and an explanation.

Della Ryness-Hirsch has a son who contracted hepatitis C and wasn't informed about it until years later. She said she knew about the blood being imported and confronted hospital staff about seeking alternative options. The result: across her son's medical record the hospital staff wrote "neurotic mother".

"When you take on the medical establishment you are dealing with the very people who hold your loved one’s care in their hands. And that is a very, very frightening situation," she said.

A conspiracy theory has developed among some of the victims that says the government in alliance with the US was looking for guinea pigs to intentionally infect and subsequently use new medicines on. But Duda dismissed this and said the heart of it is greed and financial interest.

"If they were weighing the risk, then they knew the risk. They knew where they were getting the blood from and they knew the samples weren't virally deactivated. They chose commerce over safety."

Still the story has made few ripples in the UK media, and many victims fear the government is waiting for them to die and ignore this four-decade old saga.

But Duda plans to be back. "No one can undo what has happened. All you can do is help inform them as to how and why it happened, and then with that information hopefully shining light on it, it is there for the record so that things like this cannot happen again."

William Hilderbrandt is an American wrapping up an MA in international journalism at City University in London. Though he currently lives in North London, he is soon to set off to Madagascar to write his thesis.