The wife and daughter of a much-loved Fylde coast man who died 42 years after being infected by contaminated blood at Blackpool Victoria Hospital have welcomed a government inquiry into the wide-spread healthcare scandal that is believed to have claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people.
The inquiry has now been opened into the alleged ‘cover-up’ of infected blood used in hospitals during the 1970s and 1980s in what has been called the ‘worst ever’ NHS treatment disaster.
As many as 30,000 people are believed to have been infected with HIV and hepatitis viruses due to contaminated blood transfusions, the BBC reported.
Paul Birch, 59, died in January last year - 42 years after it is believed he contracted hepatitis C in a blood transfusion at Blackpool Victoria Hospital following a motorbike accident.
But Mr Birch, a joiner who lived on Rock Street, Thornton, had no idea he had been living with the potentially life-threatening virus until 2011.
His wife Christine, 59, said: “I just want to find out the truth. I know at the time my husband was given the transfusion the blood wasn’t screened, and was infected. I can quite understand that was the scenario at the time and had he not had his transfusion he may have lost his life at that time.
However, what I want to find out is when exactly did they first realise there was a problem, when did they realise they had been giving patients this infected blood, and what happened afterwards when they found out.
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“Did they take steps to try and identify possible victims for treatment they could have offered?
“It seems to have been swept under the carpet.”
Mr Birch hid his shock diagnosis from his family until 2012, when his daughter Rebecca, 25, became pregnant.
He underwent at least two bouts of treatment for hepatitis C from 2013, but his health continued to decline.
He developed jaundice due to liver damage, and was diagnosed with cancer in 2016.
Mrs Birch said: “By the time my husband was diagnosed they gave him this intensive treatment, however, because he was already over 50 the chances of it working were small. Had he been told years earlier, his chances could have been totally different, He could have been cured.”
Rebecca said: “He was very ill. He couldn’t get out of bed. He was dead to the world.
“He was in hospital pretty much every other month and just went downhill from there. I knew as soon as he got diagnosed with cancer he didn’t have long to live.”
Miss Birch, a care co-ordinator, gave up her job to look after her dad full time.
“It was horrible,” she said. “He couldn’t do anything. He had to stop work. He was as yellow as butter because of the jaundice. It was horrible to see. He was a big, hefty guy and it reduced him to nothing, all because they took 40 years to tell him.”
During his illness, Mr Birch received a yearly payment from the Skipton Fund - a payment scheme for people who were infected with hepatitis C through treatment with NHS blood in England, Wales and Northern Ireland before September 1991.
He died in January 2017 of cancer of the lymph nodes.
Paperwork shared with The Gazette said the cause of Mr Birch’s hepatitis was probably the blood transfusion he had in 1975, though there was a question of whether it could have also been caused by a piercing.
Blood products started to be treated to kill viruses in the 1980s, but questions remain about how much was known about the contamination, and why some infected blood remained in circulation.
Former health secretary Andy Burnham called the scandal “a criminal cover-up on an industrial scale” in the House of Commons last year.
Miss Birch said she also believes a cover-up had taken place. She said: “My dad didn’t even know he was ill until 2009 when he started feeling a bit tired sometimes. He wasn’t quite himself - and then it got worse.
“For the past 40 years of his life he had been fine. We’d never suspected it. All of a sudden, out of the blue, we found out in 1975 they had given him hep C.
“I feel angry. My dad shouldn’t be dead. He should still be here. I feel like there’s no justice.
“The point of this inquiry is to try and get that, but we have had to try so hard to get our voices heard.
“I want to know why it happened. I want to know what the reason was for not telling people for so long.”
Mrs Birch said: “Paul was a typical bloke. He loved his fishing and loved his motorbikes. We had been together since I was 15 and he was 17. He was the love of my life.
“I feel like it has been brushed under the carpet and they have forgotten that there have been thousands of people affected by this.
“How many people are still living with it? My husband lost his life, as well as a lot of other people.”
The inquiry chairman said...
Sir Brian Langstaff, chairman of the inquiry into the blood scandal, said: “Many of the people infected and their families have campaigned for the inquiry for many years.
They helped to shape the inquiry’s terms of reference. This is now their opportunity to tell me where they want the inquiry to focus its investigative powers.
“The sheer scale of the task the inquiry is undertaking is demonstrated by the fact that over a thousand people and many organisations have already engaged with the inquiry by contributing to the terms of reference, by providing documents, and by preparing to make witness statements.
“The inquiry has already received over 100,000 documents and expects to acquire several times that number. There will also be many hundreds of witness statements.
“I am grateful for each and every contribution. There must however still be more who have knowledge, documents and their own accounts to add. I know that going over the past can be difficult but I encourage them to come forward.”
The contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s saw around 5,000 people with haemophilia and other blood disorders infected with Hepatitis C in NHS hospitals.
Some 1,200 of these were also infected with the HIV virus.
People who underwent blood transfusions were also exposed to the contaminated blood, and it was estimated that as many as 30,000 people may have been infected.
It has been called the ‘worst ever NHS treatment disaster’.
The inquiry into the scandal began on Monday, after decades of campaigning by activists. It is expected to last more than two years.
During the 1970s and 80s, to keep up with the demand for blood, the UK began to import supplies from America.
Some of the blood plasma came from prison inmates who had sold their blood.
By the mid-80s, the products started to be treated with heat to kill the viruses.