UK tainted blood scandal: surviving schoolchildren say they were ‘injected with death’
Lord Mayor Treloar College was meant to be a safe haven for boys who might die from a broken arm or a fall down the stairs.
Within the walls of their boarding school, they were protected from the sharp edges and sheer drops of the outside world.
But in the 1980s, the biggest danger they faced was not just inside the school grounds.
It was injected directly into their veins.
Of the 89 boys who attended school in the 1970s and 1980s, three-quarters are now dead.
Treloar has promised state-of-the-art treatment for their severe hemophilia between lessons, swimming lessons and archery.
But it turned out that they were in fact receiving injections of blood drawn from American inmates and drug addicts intravenously.
Imported human plasma was contaminated with HIV and hepatitis and unwittingly passed on to children.
The result was a devastating loss of life. Only 17 of Treloar’s 1980s graduates live today.
Survivor Gary Webster said during an investigation into the scandal he was “guilty of still being here”.
âYou can’t put children in beds and give them treatment without telling them the dangers of that treatment,â he said.
But the use of tainted blood was not limited to Treloar College.
In the UK alone, up to 30,000 people have been treated with contaminated blood and up to 3,000 lives have been lost.
Countless more have seen their livelihoods destroyed in the wake of the scandal that saw infected blood used to treat people with hemophilia or patients receiving transfusions after accidents and childbirth.
Lives “torn” by contaminated blood
Hemophilia, an inherited disease that prevents blood from clotting properly, was initially controlled by transfusions of plasma products.
The widespread contamination is believed to have started after the UK started importing a blood clotting agent known as factor VIII from the US as it struggled to meet demand in its country.
John Grindley, a severe hemophiliac, relied on factor VIII to stay alive.
When he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, his wife Mary said their life had become “living hell”.
Shortly after John received his result, Mary asked her specialist the most pressing question she had at the time: could they try to have a second child?
He was told to put “everything on hold”.
âAIDS had just become big news,â Mary recalls of the moment in 1984.
“There was no more thought of a second baby, no more marital relationship, there was no more close contact with each other.”
Many people mistakenly believed in the 1980s that HIV could be transmitted by just touching.
âJohn had a separate cup, plate and napkin,â Mary said.
He died ten years later, at the age of 41.
Lawyer Michael Imperato is representing the Grindleys and several other families in the UK National Health Service’s investigation into what has been called the biggest treatment disaster in history.
It is also considered one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters.
While the victims want some sort of compensation, their main goal, according to Imperato, is to understand what happened and why their lives have been “torn apart”.
âThe victim could have been a husband with young children and a wife,â Mr. Imperato said.
“The children are left without a mother and then you have other people who have not died but who have lived with a terrible debilitating disease.”
Did the contaminated blood come from Australia?
Thomas Dai Griffiths, who was born with hemophilia, suspects he contracted hepatitis C from blood that came from the United States.
But he would never know because he was also receiving blood products prepared in laboratories in Western Australia.
Tens of thousands of people around the world were infected with tainted blood from Australia between the 1970s and the early 1990s, when testing procedures became more stringent.
In 1996, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), which was owned by the federal government until 1994, admitted to having previously mixed Australian blood with blood from other Pacific countries.
“There is no certainty about this as I received Australian blood products throughout the 1970s and my hepatitis C was not recognized until around 1980,” Griffiths said.
“So I can’t be sure where the hepatitis C infection originated from.”
Mr Griffiths testified during the blood investigation, alleging that authorities at the time went to great lengths to cover up the mistakes made.
“There seemed to be a coalition of secrecy between the government, the health ministry, and regional health departments and in fact seasoned hematologists,” he told the ABC.
“It was almost as if they feared that the information would become public and that it inevitably costs lives.”
After decades of poor health, the 76-year-old underwent a liver transplant in 2004.
âI’ve had a good 16 years since then,â he said.
“He’s been covered for 30 years”
Former UK Health Secretary Ken Clarke, who held the post in the early 1980s, was condemned by the families of the victims when he appeared to disregard their concerns when he conducted the investigation in July.
At one point, he questioned the need for “such meticulous detail”.
But for Mr. Imperato, the detail is where the heck is.
According to him, two scandals are the subject of an investigation by the British investigation; one on why tainted blood was distributed and a second on what governments did or did not do.
âIt’s been covered for about 30 years and it’s the same in Australia,â he said.
Mary Grindley, now 72 and widowed, has been a strong advocate for victims during the investigation which will continue to hear testimony for the remainder of the year.
After years of social isolation due to her husband’s HIV status, she suffered a mental health crisis after his death and lost her teaching job.
When asked if it destroyed her life, she replied, “Oh yes completely and it has since.”