Decades on from killer NHS blood scandal thousands are still fighting for justice
In the first of a four-part series, the Ham&High uncovers the scandal of the NHS blood products that wrecked lives
A mother whose son was killed by one of the biggest “cover-ups” in NHS history has spoken of her fight for justice decades after her son was infected with a deadly virus that ended his life.
Talented musician Nick Hirsch was one of thousands of haemophiliacs infected by contaminated blood and blood products supplied by the NHS until 1991.
His mother Della Hirsch has told of the stonewall she faced as she tried to alert doctors to her fears that life-saving blood treatments carried potentially deadly viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C.
The British government continued to import these products from America, made from high risk donors such as prisoners and drug addicts, even after being warned they carried viruses. Yet patients were not told of the risks.
Many others, such as people in need of blood transfusions, were also infected from unchecked blood not just imported to the UK, but from domestic donors as well.
While checks have thoroughly improved and blood products are now heat treated to make them safe, three decades on the scandal’s devastating effects has inspired a growing campaign to deliver justice for the victims and the families who have lost loved ones.
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Della, 71, said: “There was a huge cover-up. I don’t know whether if they’d taken note then, if they had thought more carefully and started looking at it right away, maybe they would have come up with heat treatment of blood sooner and maybe everything would have stopped right then and there.”
As a baby, non-identical twin Nick was diagnosed with the blood clotting disorder haemophilia. There was no family history and he was among a tiny number of people who develop the condition spontaneously.
To treat it Nick relied on blood products. But in the early 1980s his mother tried to alert doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital to problems with blood being reported in San Francisco, where a good friend of hers lived.
As early as December 1982 the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported that three haemophiliacs had died after developing Aids.
There was nothing to suggest they had acquired it through homosexual contact or intravenous drug use. What was significant was that they had all received Factor VIII concentrates – a blood transfusion product made by pooling blood from donors.
“I had over a period of two years tried to tell the haemophilia department at Great Ormond Street that there was a problem with blood used for treatment,” said Della, who lives in Highgate and is the sister of former Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone.
“I brought them articles from people in San Francisco and LA alerting me to this. They did not want to know about it. No-one showed the slightest interest in anything I tried to show or tell them.”
She stopped Nick having Factor VIII treatment, which was being given to other children in the unit. But in 1985 Della was called to the hospital and told the horrific news that every child under the age of nine had been infected with HIV - except for Nick.
He had not escaped another killer virus and found out aged 12 that he had hep C, which lays waste to the liver. Years later the former William Ellis pupil was also told he may have been exposed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), known as ‘mad cow’s disease’.
“He was 21. How he lived the rest of his life knowing these things were hovering around his neck I don’t know,” said his mother.
While undergoing painful treatment to try and clear the hep C virus in 2012, Nick was rushed to hospital from his Muswell Hill home and died. He was 36 and left behind his partner of 12 years and a daughter of 10 months. Della took up a fierce fight to secure compensation for his family. She believes it was not enough.
“I would like to see proper financial aid, a lump sum payment and a continuing stream of care for people who are suffering from any of these viruses they got through the National Health Service,” she said.
“And that they acknowledge that lives have been basically ruined and in many cases families left without parents.”
Former British Airways employee Mark Ward, 46, was given imported Factor VIII as a child, against his parents wishes.
Aged 14, he was told he had HIV by a nurse shouting across the waiting room of the Royal Free Hospital’s haemophilia unit in Hampstead.
“It’s haunted me for 30 years,” he said. “I have flashbacks and nightmares connected with that.”
The subject of shocking television advertising campaigns, HIV at that time was a death sentence.
“Those adverts showed hospital wards where rows of skeletons were clinging to life and that was my fate,” said Mark.
He later learned he had also been infected with hep C and exposed to CJD. Despite this Mark had a successful career in the airline industry before ill health forced him to stop work.
Payouts have been made to some victims but amounts vary depending on whether they have HIV or hep C, or both. A growing campaign is demanding fairer settlements.
“People need money, partly because it says ‘We acknowledge we f***ed you over for the last 35 years and we want to help you now,” said Della. “I maintain, if they’d listened at the beginning there was a hell of a lot they could have done.”
A spokesman for Great Ormond Street Hospital said: “We are very sorry for Mrs Hirsch’s loss and deeply regret that she does not feel her concerns were properly addressed at the time.
“This was a national issue that happened several decades ago, affecting haemophilia patients across the country as a result of blood products imported by the government at the time from the United States. The safety of all our patients is our utmost priority and when a concern is raised we do everything we can to ensure it is listened to and responded to as quickly as possible.”
Of the 7,000 people given contaminated blood products, some through routine transfusions, only an estimated 6,000 know it. Some 2,000 people have died.
In terms of death toll, the contaminated blood scandal is the 15th largest peacetime disaster in British history. Despite this a full government-led inquiry has never been held in this country.
See next week’s Ham&High: Left in poverty and made to beg for support - the funds that are “unfit for purpose”