A British couple, doggedly pursuing a case they filed in the US against drug firms that supplied contaminated blood products, have received some fresh hopes. Their case is being remitted to the UK courts, along with a few others.
It was the husband, Haydn Lewis from Cardiff, a haemophiliac, who was given contaminated blood.
AdvertisementHaemophilia is a hereditary blood disease, primarily affecting males, where the blood fails to clot causing potentially life-threatening 'bleeds'. People with haemophilia rely on intravenous infusion of recombinant Factor VIII clotting protein.
As a teenager in Wales he refused to be constrained by his haemophilia. At 18, he married his childhood sweetheart, Gaynor. In 1979, at 22, he began using 'the miracle' Factor VIII concentrate, expecting it to make his disease more manageable. But the blood was contaminated.
Six years later, with two young sons, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive. He discovered a short time later that his wife Gaynor had contracted HIV from him. He had also been infected with hepatitis C which, in many ways, has even more serious consequences.
Hepatitis C is one type of liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). It usually spreads through contact with infected blood. It can also spread through sex with an infected person and from mother to baby during childbirth.
The infection can last a lifetime and may lead to liver cancer. Medicines sometimes help, but side effects can be a problem. Serious cases may need a liver transplant.
About 5,000 haemophiliacs contracted the potentially fatal liver disease from contaminated blood, as did an estimated 20,000 non-haemophiliacs.
Haydn and Gaynor had to give up careers with substantial incomes to live on disability allowances.
The couple, with six other claimants, have been trying to pursue their case against the American companies for five years in the US courts.
Thousands of people in the UK received blood contaminated with potentially deadly viruses during the late Seventies and Eighties. Much of it was imported from the United States.
It was a cruel irony that for thousands of haemophiliacs across the world, the same 'miracle substance' they were being given to prolong their lives also handed them a sentence of prolonged illness and probable death. The vast majority succumbed to the disease.
Following a public outcry and on the recommendation of a High Court judge, the UK government announced plans in 1988 to compensate the 1,200 haemophiliacs.
Of them, more than 800 have now died. Around 380 are still alive, along with around 20 non-haemophiliacs. With their one-off payments long gone, their health deteriorating, crippling side-effects from the powerful drugs that keep the virus at bay and their opportunities to work virtually non-existent, many rely on state benefits and exist in acute poverty.
Recently, a US judge ruled that the cases should be heard in Britain. One of the reasons cited was that it would be easier for bodies such as the Department of Health to be joined in the action as defendants along with the drug companies.
Bayer, Baxter Healthcare, Armour Pharmaceutical, CSL Behring, Sanofi-Aventis US and Alpha Therapeutic "all of which exported blood products known as Factor 8 and Factor 9 to Britain are at the centre of the scam. Some batches were contaminated by the viruses."
Some others who suffered in the blood scandal and could clearly identify which products caused their infections have all received compensation from the firms in question.
Eight cases in which such clear identification is not possible have so far been referred back to the British courts by American judges, but there are 250 more still in the US system which are likely to follow suit.
Lawyers for the Lewises are hoping to reopen the issue of government responsibility for the scandal in the British courts.
Laurence Vick, head of clinical negligence at Michelmores in Exeter, who is representing Mr and Mrs Lewis, said he hoped to involve the British government in the legal action, even though it signed a financial settlement in 1991 with the haemophiliacs who contracted HIV.
"We think it can be done. It is an issue we are keen to investigate. There is a strong feeling that the compensation was under-settled."
There was "a stack of information within the Department of Health which was not known at the time of the settlement," he said.
Lewis has been fighting for years to try to establish which of the contaminated batches were responsible for his infection, and therefore which company or companies to pursue, but the Department of Health withheld documents on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Vick said he believed the haemophiliacs may have been the victims of a cover-up by government officials. "For too long the truth has been obscured by closed agreements and compromised solutions. The American manufacturers must take responsibility for the consequences of commercial decisions to supply contaminated blood products."
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