‘Medics knew risk of HIV-infected blood’ given to patients at Royal Free Hospital
- Credit: Archant
A doctor who worked at the Royal Free Hospital at the height of the contaminated blood scandal in the 1980s has admitted he knew blood products given to patients were infected with the deadly HIV virus.
Dr Edward Tuddenham has spoken of the horror of watching patients with the blood clotting disorder haemophilia die from Aids as a result of treatment the NHS gave to them.
In an exclusive interview with the Ham&High he said the Royal Free in Hampstead continued to use a new wonder treatment known as Factor VIII even after the risks were known.
“By 1984 we were very much concerned that we could be giving infected products that would transmit HIV,” he said. “We were still trying to keep to British product as much as possible but we were nowhere near self-sufficiency.”
From 1982 onwards haemophiliacs in the United States began to die from Aids and it was widely feared the virus was present in Factor VIII products used to treat the condition.
The treatment was revolutionary as patients could inject Factor VIII at home rather than having days of painful hospital transfusions to stop bleeding.
But Britain was unable to meet demand for the new wonder medicine and companies in America quickly found a way to profit from the shortage.
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Across the US people were paid to donate blood, a practice banned in the UK, including high-risk donors such as drug addicts and prisoners.
The blood plasma of up to 60,000 donors was used to make each batch of Factor VIII treatment and even one infected donor would be enough to contaminate the entire pool with HIV or hepatitis C (hep C).
Patients treated with an infected batch would almost certainly catch the killer viruses.
The consequences were devastating.
Between 1979 and 1985 some 315 haemophilia patients at the Royal Free were infected with hep C and 111 of those also contracted the HIV virus, which at the time was a death sentence.
Dr Tuddenham, who is now retired, said doctors were confronted with a stark choice about whether to use American Factor VIII products.
“There was an increasing awareness of the risk but at the same time we didn’t have adequate home-made products to treat all the bleeding in patients, including life-threatening and limb-threatening bleeding,” he said.
“So we had a choice was it bleed to death or be damaged by a bleed, or was it take the clearly increasing risk of what we knew by then was a deadly disease.”
Despite the dangers, American Factor VIII products continued to be used at the Royal Free alongside the lower-risk British products while he was co-director of the haemophilia centre from 1978 to 1986.
“I don’t think it was ever seriously discussed that we should stop using all imported concentrate and switch, although there was a perception of differential risk,” said Dr Tuddenham.
“It became increasingly clear that every batch imported from the American multi-donor concentrates was HIV positive. I think 70 per cent of our patients when tested were HIV positive.”
Nationally more than 2,000 haemophiliacs have lost their lives to the disaster and many victims claim they were never informed of the risks of Factor VIII treatment.
Dr Tuddenham said it was not a “policy issue” to tell every Royal Free patient that switching to other treatments would reduce the dangers of catching the deadly viruses.
“By the time it had become clear there was increased risk most patients had been exposed to it [HIV] and it was the stable door analogy,” he said.
Speaking at a screening of the documentary Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale at the Institute of Contemporary Arts last Thursday, he said he had regrets.
“With a major disaster like this there’s never one cause for it,” he said. “If we could re-run it, we’d do it differently. It’s there as a standing caution and warning to us that we must never relax our caution and vigilance and remember the famous Hippocratic oath statement ‘At lease do no harm’.”
Responding to his comments, the Royal Free said it was not possible to screen blood products for HIV and hep C in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
A spokeswoman said: “Sadly, many British patients with severe haemophilia who were treated during this time became infected with HIV or hepatitis C.
“Along with other NHS hospitals who treated haemophilia patients during this period, we deeply regret this.
“The patients were, and still are, offered medical support and counselling following their diagnoses.”
LORD OWEN: ‘I believe there was a cover-up’
Lord David Owen, health minister from 1974 to 1976, said his personal ministerial papers relating to the blood scandal had been destroyed and he believes there has been a “cover-up”.
Speaking at the film screening, he said: “I have become convinced that there has been a cleaning-up of documents and it seems to me it’s not just in this country but it has been in many countries.”
As health minister in 1975 Lord Owen announced in Parliament that Britain would become “self-sufficient” in its supply of blood products, instead of relying on imports from other countries.
But the programme was “starved of money, blocked and effectively we gave up self-sufficiency” without Parliament ever being informed, Lord Owen told the audience.
Only a few short years later the dire consequences were seen in the blood scandal.
Lord Owen has supported victims’ calls for proper compensation and a full public inquiry.
“This whole area is a mess, it is still a mess,” he said. “It has not been cleaned up and a younger generation than me will have to go on fighting.”
BARONESS FEATHERSTONE: ‘Campaigning journalism leads to change’
Baroness Lynne Featherstone, whose nephew lost his life in the killer blood scandal, has thanked the Ham&High for its continued campaigning on the issue.
“I’m really grateful that the Ham&High are following this and pursuing this because that’s how things happen,” said the former Hornsey and Wood Green MP.
Speaking at a film screening of Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale, organised by campaigner Jason Evans who lost his father to the disaster, she vowed to continue to ask questions in the Lords about holding a Hillsborough-style public inquiry into the NHS blood disaster.
“There’s still a cover-up,” she said. “They have never admitted knowing and knowingly treating people without informing them.
“So literally I believe 2,500 haemophiliacs have been unlawfully killed and this government has not admitted to it.
“I’m not saying they did it maliciously but it happened and I think maybe now is the time to push for the truth.”