How British patients were infected with HIV from US prisoners who donated blood for a few dollars

Blood scandal
Blood scandal

British patients were given a medical treatment infected with HIV and hepatitis that was made from plasma donated by US prisoners, an inquiry into the scandal has found.

Inmates in American prisons sold their plasma for medical treatments in the 1970s and 1980s, which led to HIV infections for some 1,250 people with haemophilia in the UK.

The treatment Factor VIII, which replaces the clotting protein that people with haemophilia require to stop bleeds, was made from thousands of plasma donations that were pooled together in the US.

Pharmaceutical companies paid for plasma from donors at high risk of blood-borne viruses including intravenous drug users, inmates and sex workers.

The Infected Blood Inquiry has concluded that the UK should never have licensed commercial Factor VIII made in the US in 1973 because of the known risk.

Sir Brian Langstaff, the chairman of the inquiry, said: “The UK was wrong to decide to license these products in 1973. Those products should not have been permitted to have been distributed in this country generally.”

In his final report, Sir Brian found doctors, politicians and pharmaceutical companies had known about the risk of hepatitis and HIV in Factor VIII but did not tell patients.

“There was evidence of a lack of safety,” the report said. “The risk was a serious one. Though safety is a balance, and not an absolute, there is no material now available which shows what it was that may have tipped the scales in favour of licensing. I have concluded that the decisions were wrong.”

Inmates in the US described having sex with one another before donating plasma, bribing their fellow inmates to let them donate even if they had recently had tattoos done in prison, and if they had tested positive for hepatitis C.

Richard Vincent, a prisoner at Louisiana State Penitentiary, testified in the US that he had been paid $15 to donate plasma twice a week.

“Inmates pricked your finger, inmates gave your blood pressure,” he said, in transcripts revealed in The Poison Line, a book documenting the scandal. “Inmates cleaned the thing on your arm where you was going to get stuck.”

He said prisoners had sex and used drugs in the line to donate.

“It wasn’t nothing to see people in the bathroom having sex before they go on the table to bleed,” said Vincent. “They’re having oral sex and anal sex, then five minutes later they’re on the table giving blood.”

The plasma centre at the Louisiana prison was nicknamed the “honeymoon suite”. Guards removed doors to try to stop the sex but it continued regardless.

Hepatitis C and HIV were rife within the prison.

The pharmaceutical companies then exacerbated the risk by pooling thousands of donations together.

“The price of having more factor concentrates which were from large pools and paid donors was the taking in of products manufactured in a way which significantly increased the risk to recipients that they would incur serious, and sometimes fatal, disease,” said Sir Brian’s report.

Blood was also collected from prisoners in the UK for transfusions which gave NHS patients hepatitis C.

“In 1975 the chief medical officer for England said the practice of collecting blood in prisons could continue even though prisoners were known to have higher numbers of hepatitis infections,” said Sir Brian. “And this practice was not ended in the UK until 1984; no real efforts were made to prevent those who had used intravenous drugs – and who were therefore a higher risk of hepatitis – from donating blood.”

In conclusion, Sir Brian said, “The blood used for transfusions and to make blood products in the UK was from British donors, who could and should have been better selected.”

Some 3,000 people have died in the infected blood scandal, which Sir Brian said was an avoidable disaster that should never have happened.

The Poison Line: Life and Death in the Infected Blood Scandal by Cara McGoogan is out now (Penguin).

Listen to Bed of Lies, a six-part Telegraph podcast laying bare the biggest treatment disaster in NHS history, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app.