Lawyers acting on behalf of over 300 people who received contaminated blood have called on NHS England to set up a nationwide screening programme for people who may have been infected, but who may not realise that they have been living with Hepatitis C virus (HCV).
It is estimated that at least 28,000 people who received contaminated blood (or blood products) during the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s and may be living with the health consequences of HCV and not know it.
HCV can eventually lead to liver failure and liver cancer if left untreated with many people not developing symptoms for decades. Some may not know they have the virus until their liver is severely damaged.
According to the British Liver Trust, it is not unusual for these people with HCV to be misdiagnosed as having ME or chronic fatigue syndrome. The Department of Health estimates 28,000 people who needed blood transfusions (or blood products) in the UK before 1991 were infected with/ exposed to HCV.
This contaminated blood scandal is the subject of a public inquiry which commenced last year, and public hearings will recommence on April 30th 2019. The actual number of people infected with HCV as a result of contaminated blood or blood products is one of the issues the public inquiry is investigating.
Speaking on the first day of the Infected Blood Inquiry, on 24th September 2018, the chair of the inquiry Sir Brian Langstaff said:
“It's a truly sobering thought that if some claims are well-founded - and it is for this Inquiry to find out if they are - there may yet be many thousands more who do not feel well, but have not yet been told that the reason for this is that they suffer from Hepatitis C.”
He continued in his opening address: “… estimates proposed by some sources go well beyond the 25,000 or so … and there is a real chance that those estimates may prove right. It is a sobering thought that the consequences of what happened then may be continuing to cause death even now.”
Last month Public Health Wales announced that they will be writing to people in Wales who have previously been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but were unsuccessfully treated, to invite them to be retested and receive the new treatments.
However, Gene Matthews from law firm Leigh Day who is taking a group legal action on behalf of people who received contaminated blood and contracted HCV, has called on NHS England and Public Health Wales to launch a screening programme and public awareness campaign to help people get tested for the virus.
Mr Matthews, a partner at Leigh Day which runs the website HCVJustice.co.uk, said:
“It is estimated that many thousands of people remain unaware of the fact that they are suffering as a result of HCV which they received as a result of contaminated blood provided in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. There are also many families who lost loved ones from the virus after they became infected during this period of time.
“Whilst we are campaigning for justice for HCV victims, we urge the Department of Health to help people identify whether they have the virus, especially as new treatments, which have become more widely available during the past few years, are very effective and have a 90 per cent success rate in clearing the virus from the body.”
The newer treatments consist of a once daily tablet for eight to 12 weeks and have minimal side effects.
HCVJustice.co.uk is a website run by Leigh Day for people who contracted HCV from contaminated blood and are interested in joining a group legal action against the Department of Health for compensation for victims, and their families, of the scandal.
In addition to the group legal action Leigh Day are also representing a group of over 300 core participants of the inquiry who have been affected by the contaminated blood, both those given the blood through routine transfusion such as following an accident, complications during childbirth or routine dental treatment and blood products given to haemophiliacs.
“During the past seven months we have been taking witness statements from the individuals we represent at the Inquiry and it has become increasingly apparent just how much damage HCV causes to a person’s physical and mental health.
“The damage to health can increase over time and so we would urge people to get tested as soon as possible. If you have HCV, you can be treated. As long as HCV remains undiagnosed and undetected it can be causing serious harm.”
The number of people who are thought to have received the virus from contaminated blood before the mid-1990s and who remain unaware is unknown but it is likely to be tens of thousands of people.