'Useful material': Blood Inquiry witness says medics 'knew the risks'

Bruce Norval at the Infected Blood Inquiry

Bruce Norval said medics 'should have known the risks' of blood products by the time they were treating haemophiliacs in the 1960s and 1970s - Credit: Infected Blood Inquiry

"What were we for? Useful material."

At the Infected Blood Inquiry (IBI), campaigner and researcher Bruce Norval said doctors "knew the risks" of using blood products to treat haemophilia in the 1960s and 1970s - because blood transfusions and vaccines given to soldiers during the Second World War had already seen liver disease rates rise.

Bruce was diagnosed with haemophilia B in the late 1960s. During the late 1980s and early 1990s he lived in Kilburn, and he was briefly a patient at the Royal Free.

Like thousands of other victims of the contaminated blood scandal, he was treated with products containing lethal viruses including hepatitis C. 

Since discovering he had hep C in 1990, he has devoted much of his time to piecing together the "jigsaw" of what people knew about the risk of blood products and when.

The IBI - chaired by Sir Brian Langstaff - is investigating the circumstances around the scandal, which has seen more than a thousand, and likely many more, die after contracting HIV or hepatitis from NHS treatment

Bruce told the inquiry: "There's no point at which we start treating haemophiliacs, whether it's '55 or '64, where you don't already have enough data to know that the use of concentrates, even in small pooling, is going to cause a problem."

Bruce Norval

Bruce Norval gave evidence to the Infected Blood Inquiry on June 9 - Credit: Archant

He said if doctors had been more cautious "hundreds" of those who have died would still be living.

Bruce also suggested that medics were more interested in haemophiliacs as research subjects than as patients, adding that what they were "really interested in is what we catch". 

A former nurse, he criticised the public health response in the late 20th century - saying medics treated hepatitis as if it were simply a side-effect, rather than a virus in its own right.

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He said: “We’re not talking about a side-effect here, we’re talking about a virus in a living being.

“Someone who is sent back out into the community, unknowingly, to have sex with the person they love, to interact with their families, play football, maybe cut themselves in the workplace.

“One of the biggest horrors I feel as an individual is the thought I may have hurt someone I don’t know, that I might have passed the virus on to someone else without meaning to.

“We’re not talking about saving my life or saving my pain, we’re talking about turning me into potentially a vehicle that could cause death to a whole family.

“The way this is being talked about is as if we lived in isolation but we didn’t."

Bruce also told the inquiry he thought it was a "red herring" to fixate on whether the blood products given to UK patients were derived from British or foreign sources.

He said: "The difference between using American and British product is purely the act of what coalmine you put the canary down. You're still going to kill the canary."

Bruce also told the inquiry how it was incorrect to present the choice faced by doctors in the 1960s and 1970s as one where to not give a child blood products for their haemophilia would be tantamount to letting them die. 

He said: "If it was true, I wouldn't have had the experience of spending time with haemophiliacs who were 70 or 80-years old as a child.

"How the hell did they get to be that old? How did these guys get to be 50? Yeah, they were a bit crippled. They had calipers, they had built up boots from joints that hadn't grown properly. But they were alive."

Bruce, whose wife Christine has previously given evidence to the inquiry, explained how, for decades, "all I wanted from the doctors was a straight answer".

Instead, he said, he had been given "short shrift" by doctors who saw him as a "troublemaker". 

"I'm sure I'm not alone in getting a lower class of medicine just for the simple fact that I question things," he said.

Looking forward, Bruce asked the inquiry to look to help fill in the gaps. "There are still massive pieces missing," he said. 

He also paid tribute to fellow members of the "infected and affected" community - a phrase he coined - and said his "task now" was: "To ensure I truly honour the fallen. Those ghosts of friends, those irretractable promises that I would see the fight through to the end."

The Infected Blood Inquiry continues, with government witnesses set to give further evidence this summer.

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