Canada’s “Tainted Blood” Inquiry
By Awake! correspondent in Canada
VICTIMS of contaminated blood in Canada are dying from AIDS in growing numbers. Why the increase? More than a thousand Canadians contracted the AIDS virus from “tainted blood” and blood products in the 1980’s. These disturbing facts moved the federal government to set up a Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada. A public inquiry would determine the safety of Canada’s blood system.
One of the country’s most highly respected senior judges was named commissioner of the inquiry. The commission is holding hearings across Canada. Hearings began in Toronto on February 14, 1994, and the Honorable Mr. Justice Horace Krever of the Ontario Court of Appeal was commissioned to report his findings in due course and to recommend improvements.
A bereaved mother whose son died of AIDS from contaminated blood appealed to the judge: “They took my son and all I got was this inquiry. Please make it count.” She was anxious to see that a thorough investigation would be made so that the necessary steps would be taken to avoid the dangers associated with blood transfusions. She was not the only mother who lost a son in death from tainted blood. The commission heard heartbreaking testimony concerning this tragedy that shattered the lives of many Canadians.
Headlines in Toronto’s Globe and Mail have reported: “Anger, Tears as Victims Tell of Blood Horror”; “Blood Inquiry Hears Chilling Testimony”; “Ignorance of MDs Detailed”; and “Officials Judged AIDS Risk to Be Tiny, Blood Inquiry Told.”
Victims who contracted HIV from blood have said they were not warned about the risks. In several cases they did not know they had received a blood transfusion until they learned they were infected with the AIDS virus.
A teenager with AIDS got HIV from a blood transfusion during open-heart surgery when he was three years old. An HIV-positive man with mild hemophilia used blood products prior to 1984 at a time when he was playing hockey. He would have changed his life-style had he known the risks. A mother was transfused with HIV-contaminated blood in 1985, and now she, her husband, and their four-year-old daughter are all infected.
There have been heartbreaking accounts of people infected from only one or two units of blood. “Just to put a little red in his cheeks,” said one woman bitterly of the transfusion that infected her husband with HIV. Now she has the virus too.
As more witnesses testified, attention has turned to another tragedy of great proportions—hepatitis from blood. According to The Globe and Mail, it is estimated that “as many as 1,000 Canadians a year die of hepatitis C.” The newspaper adds that “up to half of them may have contracted the disease from blood transfusions.”
One man told how he contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion during back surgery in 1961. After his surgery, he became a regular blood donor. He found out in 1993 that he has cirrhosis of the liver. “What about the people who received blood I donated all those years when I didn’t know I had this disease?” he asked the inquiry.
Justice Krever listened intently to more than a hundred Canadians whose lives have been shattered by HIV and other tragedies resulting from tainted blood. Medical experts have testified that it is impossible to make the blood supply totally safe from disease transmission and other dangers. They have admitted serious risks and misuse associated with blood. Dr. J. Brian McSheffrey, medical director of a regional blood transfusion service, testified that he draws attention to the problem by saying in lectures: “If you have to give a transfusion, you’ve either failed in diagnosis or failed in therapy.”
There have been accusations of politics and rivalry among those whom the government committee called “major stakeholders” in Canada’s $250-million-a-year blood system. The Red Cross and government agencies have come under fire. No one seems to be in charge of the complex national blood system.
In contrast with the disheartening evidence, a happier account was put before Justice Krever on May 25, 1994, in Regina, Saskatchewan. William J. Hall, a 75-year-old man with severe hemophilia, told how he successfully manages his condition using alternatives to blood products. And he does not have AIDS. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mr. Hall has avoided blood and blood factors because of his religious conscience.—See box on page 22.
More is yet to come. The government has extended the inquiry to the end of 1995. The commission could have time to examine effective nonblood treatment used in thousands of cases for adults and children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. These alternatives apply to other patients as well.
Doctors using such alternatives have expert evidence they could share with the commission. Dr. Mark Boyd of McGill University told The Medical Post in 1993: “We really should be somewhat grateful to Jehovah’s Witnesses because they have shown us how well we can do without blood transfusions.” A U.S. presidential commission noted in 1988: “The surest preventive measure with regard to the blood supply is to eliminate the exposure of a patient to the blood of others, whenever possible.” By obeying God’s law to “keep abstaining . . . from blood,” Jehovah’s Witnesses have been blessed with the “surest preventive measure” against tainted blood and other dangers of blood transfusions.—Acts 15:20, 29.
Sadly, most victims of the tainted blood transfusions were not informed about alternatives that could have prevented their tragedies. Patients were not given the choice of informed consent—to accept the risks of blood or use safer alternatives.
Evidence before the commission reveals a need to educate doctors and the public about alternatives to blood transfusions. Such a high-level government inquiry could have a great impact in Canada. Justice Krever’s recommendations could set the stage for needed changes in attitudes and education in Canadian medicine about transfusion practices. The findings of the Commission of Inquiry will be of interest to all who want to avoid the dangers that go with blood transfusions.
[Box on page 22]
HEMOPHILIA MANAGED WITHOUT BLOOD
William J. Hall of Nipawin, Saskatchewan, told the commission how and why he manages his severe hemophilia without blood products. Here are excerpts from the court transcript of his testimony:
◻ “My parents became aware that I was a hemophiliac when I swelled up from my toe to hip one time, and the doctors diagnosed it as hemophilia. . . . I would guess I was about one year old.”
◻ “I have never taken blood or any blood product of any kind. . . . It is against my religious beliefs to take blood because I feel it is sacred.”
◻ About his brother who also had hemophilia: “He didn’t have the same faith [religion] as I have, so he took a blood transfusion and he died from hepatitis.”
◻ For a duodenal ulcer in 1962: “The doctor said that, if I didn’t use blood, I would die. . . . I was treated fine [without blood] in the hospital.” The bleeding was brought under control.
◻ Regarding surgery in 1971 to pin a broken hip: “It was just a careful operation without blood. . . . The operation was successful.” Repeated blood tests at the time found no Factor VIII (clotting factor) present in his blood.
◻ How he manages: “Lifestyle . . . , being careful.” He includes diet, rest, exercise, and careful treatment of swellings, bruises, and bleeds.
◻ “I believe in relaxation and to meditate on the good things that our God has supplied us with and forget about our worries. This seems to help a lot.”
William Hall is 76 years old and is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
[Picture on page 20]
Justice Horace Krever, head of the commission
CANPRESS PHOTO SERVICE (RYAN REMIROZ)
[Picture on page 21]
William and Margaret Hall drove 230 miles [370 km] to appear before the Commission of Inquiry