This week an enquiry into the use of contaminated blood by the UK National Health Service opened (BBC story). The enquiry will examine the circumstances surrounding use of contaminated blood in the 1970s and 1980s by the NHS and the exposure of several thousand patients to HIV and hepatitis and their resultant deaths.

The accusation levelled at the government is that ministers continued to allow use of blood from the USA when they knew it was contaminated. They are alleged to have ignored warnings from government scientists.

That was over 25 years ago but even today blood transfusion isn’t entirely safe. It is a balance of the risks versus the benefits, and there is always a risk of disease transmission. More is known now about hepatitis C and HIV now than 25 years ago and blood banks now screen for these and inactivate viruses where possible. But who knows what virus may turn up next. Currently there is concern that West Nile virus and CJD may be transmitted in blood. In the UK the National Blood Service screens donors with questionnaires about possible exposure to these viruses, along with a lot of other questions about travel and lifestyle.

To trace the history of illnesses caused by blood transfusions try searching Global Health Archive and Global Health on CAB Direct with ‘transfusion and disease transmission’ and with ‘hepatitis’ for hepatitis caused by transfusion. For HIV it is more difficult because back in the 1980s HIV was not well defined so you may miss some. ‘Immune deficiency’ picks up the disease HIV causes. The earliest case of HIV caused by transfusion I could find was a case study published in 1983 in the Lancet of a child who may have got AIDS from a transfusion. Another paper of interest in 1977 showed that scientists realised the danger of commercial blood donors in the USA and in 1980 factor 8, the blood product haemophilia patients need, was shown to carry hepatitis virus.

Subscribers can see the papers by clicking on these links:

Acquired immunodeficiency in an infant: possible transmission by means of blood productsAmmann, A. J. , Cowan, M. J. , Wara, D. W. , Et Al. / Lancet, 1983, Apr. 30, Vol. 1, pp. 956-958

How frequent is post-transfusion hepatitis after the introduction of 3rd generation donor screening for hepatitis B? What is its probable nature? VOX Sanguinis., 1977, Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 346-363 

Transfusion-transmitted viruses study: experimental evidence for two non-A, non-B hepatitis agents.Hollinger, F. B. , Mosley, J. W. , Szmuness, W. , Aach, R. D. , Peters, R. L. , Stevens, C. / Journal of Infectious Diseases, 1980, Vol. 142, No. 3, pp. 400-407

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