Infected Blood Inquiry: Transfusion centre was 'disaster zone'

Professor Dame Marcela Contreras, formerly of the Royal Free

Professor Dame Marcela Contreras, formerly of the Royal Free - Credit: Infected Blood Inquiry

A “lack of interest” in self-sufficiency and over-transfusion contributed to the contaminated blood scandal, a public inquiry has heard.

Professor Dame Marcela Contreras, who held senior management roles at the North London Blood Transfusion Centre (1980-1995) and taught at the Royal Free Hospital (1998-2008), gave evidence at the Infected Blood Inquiry on December 2.

The inquiry is investigating how thousands of people contracted HIV and hepatitis in the 1970s and 1980s from contaminated blood products, mostly purchased from American pharma companies.

Prof Contreras said that it was “always my perception” that there was a lack of interest from the Department of Health in self-sufficiency – based on voluntary non-remunerated blood donation.  

“What was needed was the political will and funding from the government and the Department of Health to utilise the willing donor population,” she said.  

Prof Contreras also started a campaign to educate clinicians on the “appropriate use of blood” to tackle unnecessary transfusion and over-transfusion.  

If introduced earlier this would have “certainly” made a difference to overall infection levels, she said. “The less blood you give, the less infections you transmit.”  

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Transfusion centres were in charge of recruiting donors, collecting blood, preparing blood products and issuing them to hospitals.  

Prof Contreras said the centre in Edgware in 1980, which was later moved to Colindale, was “not fit for purpose”. 

“We were very cramped, very crowded and it was leaking, the pipes weren't working very well. It was a real disaster zone.” 

Asked about the potential seriousness of non-A non-B hepatitis (later known as HepC) in the early 1980s she said: “I couldn't know that there were going to be chronic effects."

Her view changed around 1989 when there was a realisation from consultants at the Royal Free that Hepatitis C could lead to a chronic problem.

The inquiry's chair Sir Brian Langstaff

The inquiry's chair Sir Brian Langstaff - Credit: Infected Blood Inquiry

Mark Ward, a former Royal Free patient, said: “The professor’s comment ‘the less blood you give, the less infections you transmit’ validated statements us campaigners have used for decades.

“I believe the evidence clearly shows insufficient funding across the country led to a complete failure in recognising vital safety aspects which Britain needed to become self-sufficient in blood and blood products."

“I commend the leadership and compassion shown by the professor on her approach to the emerging AIDS epidemic,” he added.