In the 1970s and 80s, almost five thousand haemophiliacs in the UK were given Factor VIII – a new blood-clotting product contaminated with HIV, Hepatitis or both.
Thousands more people became infected after routine blood transfusions in what Lord Robert Winston described as “...the worse treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.”
Much of the blood product had been imported from the US which used ‘skid-row donors’ – prisoners, drug addicts and sex-workers – all from high risk groups who were paid for each donation.
One Canadian drug company has since admitted importing blood of corpses from the then USSR – and re-labelling it as coming from Scandinavian donors.
This was a multi-million dollar industry for both the drug companies and the prison authorities alike.
In 1994, Arkansas became the last state to keep up the donations – under the watchful eye of then Senator Bill Clinton.
The dangers of contaminated blood-products had been apparent from very early on. Donor screening, HIV testing and heat treatment had been recommended by scientists worldwide. Despite this, precautions were not adopted quickly enough, and tragically many doctors unwittingly administered the contaminated product believing it to be safe.
Others simply used up the ‘old batch’ of Factor VIII on the shelf before ordering a new consignment – one that would more likely have undergone a more rigorous screening process.
Victims and their families have campaigned for decades for answers, demanding to know how such a catastrophic failure could have gone unchecked for so long.
Incredibly there have been no criminal prosecutions, unlike in France, where two senior officials were jailed when more than 30 doctors, blood centre officials and ministers were prosecuted for criminal offences.
Victims were offered ex gratia payments if they signed a waiver agreeing to drop any further claims. Many had no choice but to accept – their crippling illness had left them unable to work.
People have died, lives ruined, families torn apart.
And Clarkston author Theresa Talbot’s latest book will shine a spotlight once more on the NHS contaminated blood scandal.
After a chance conversation with a victim of the outrage, Theresa decided to make it a central theme in her new crime novel, Keep Her Silent.
The second work of fiction by the BBC Scotland traffic and travel correspondent sees the return of detective Oonagh O’Neill as she tries to piece together a spate of murders.
Keep Her Silent is set in 2002, before the Penrose Inquiry – ordered by the Scottish Government – published its findings in 2015.
The characters are fictional – but based upon interviews with those who have had their lives ruined by contaminated blood.
Theresa said: “My first novel was about the Magdalene laundry abuse scandal, so I’m interested in miscarriages of justice and institutional crime. I had heard of the ‘tainted blood scandal’, but like many, regarded it as another tragic news story.
“I didn’t take in the enormity of what had actually happened.
Theresa met Bruce Norval and from hearing his story, this enabled her to write her book and bring the tragic scandal back to the forefront of people’s minds.
She said: “I knew Bruce as a friend of a friend on Facebook. I saw his posts about the blood contamination scandal and got in touch. I can’t thank him enough.
“He was so candid in sharing his story and it was important that he was onboard with the book. He put his trust in me, and I hope that through this work of fiction I can tell at least part of his story. Bruce was keen to get the arts involved, be it a play or a book to reach more people.”
Theresa continued:“I was really nervous for him to read the novel, but he gave it a thumbs up which means so much – I actually cried!”
Theresa admits that it was a hard story to write.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “And I kept on thinking why wasn’t there a public enquiry? It was hard to make that part credible in the book because with something like this, you know that there should have been.
“When you read a news story, it’s easy to write it off as just another horror story as we are saturated with news and tragedy. But in fiction, you invest more with the characters and relate to them more.”
Theresa, who dedicated the book to Bruce, added: “I hope in some way anyone reading can understand what happened but I also think there is a need to have a proper inquiry into what went wrong.
“There is no happy ending to this story, but I wanted to give Bruce and the other campaigners a wee bit of justice which I hope I’ve achieved with Keep Her Silent.”
Keep Her Silent by Theresa Talbot is out now.
Bruce’s story: ‘My path was determined by others long ago’
Bruce Norval believes he was probably infected between 1968 and 1972, with the symptoms hepatitis first appearing in 1972. The events have had a devastating impact on the campaigner’s life.
He said: “It’s impacted on my education. AIDS hit in 1983 and every Haemophiliac had to rely on secrecy to avoid violence, unemployment and homelessness, all of which I’ve faced. I’ve never had a stable job as my health kept letting me down. I’ve been completely benefit dependant since my 30th birthday. It’s effected my marriage but not broken it, and my children have needed help.”
Bruce continued: “I’ve had to campaign for justice since my diagnosis of HCV when my wife was carrying our first child, and finally inspite of my health, I’m forced to engage with an inquiry I’ve not had a insignificant hand in bringing about to ensure my family’s future security and honour my dead friends. “It’s taken over but I couldn’t do anything else, my path was determined by others long ago when I was wee, and a raging sense of injustice.”
Bruce welcomes Theresa new book and hope it helps bring the scandal back to the fore.
He said: “Art has played a significant role in the campaign in the past and Keep Her Silent, being to my knowledge the first major use in fiction in the global story that is the Haemophilia holocaust, offers a wonderful opportunity to reach a new audience. I’ve already been the subject of a politic play called Factor 9, so engaging with Theresa seemed a wonderful opportunity to extend the idea that art really can matter.”
Contaminated blood: A new inquiry
A UK-wide public inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s is now under way.
It comes as Prime Minister Theresa May announced in July 2017 that there would be a full UK inquiry into the scandal.
The news comes three years after the Penrose Inquiry, which was launched in Scotland to exam how thousands of patients were infected with hepatitis C and HIV, published its final report.
According to the Inquiry findings, there were four main categories of patients who were infected by either or both HIV and Hepatitis C:
• 478 cases of HCV in patients with bleeding disorders
• Approximately 2,500 patients infected with HCV though blood transfusion
• 60 cases of HIV infection in people with bleeding disorders
• 18 blood transfusion patients infected with HIV
Why did it take so long for an inquiry to take place?
Many people believe that there was a cover-up around the scandal. It is estimated 3000 patients in Scotland were infected with tainted blood products but the Department of Health has gauged the figure was 30,000 UK-wide. If the fresh inquiry throws up new findings, it will have implications for Scottish victims who are still demanding compensation for what they have gone through.
For further reading on the Penrose Inquiry, visit the official website at Penrose Inquiry