A couple of years ago, a Montreal paper broke the story that a young local doctor had stopped treating patients because he was in the last stages of AIDS. It revealed that he had worked in obstetrics at several of the city’s teaching hospitals over the previous four years. This despite the fact that his colleagues were aware that he appeared gaunt and at times quite ill, and that he engaged in “high-risk” behavior.
Fortunately, I was able to confirm that I had not come in contact with that doctor. Yet for a short time, I found myself thinking about the unthinkable. What if I had been exposed to AIDS?
I felt very betrayed to think that the people I had entrusted with my care and that of my newborn child would place political correctness, or some kind of misplaced loyalty ahead of our well-being. In the meantime, the media debated the ethics of revealing that patients might have been exposed to unnamed doctor with full-blown AIDS.
Randy and Janet Connors experienced the betrayal for real. Randy, a hemophiliac from Nova Scotia was one of more than one thousand Canadians who were given HIV-tainted blood products during the early and mid-eighties. He and his wife Janet successfully campaigned for government compensation for AIDS-infected hemophiliacs, and an investigation into the country’s blood supply system. Randy died in September, at the age of 38. Janet then announced that she, too, has full-blown AIDS. Their fourteen-year-old son is not infected, but obvious has suffered greatly as a result of the disease.
As Randy Conners was buried in Nova Scotia, the Krever Inquiry into Canada’s blood supply rolled into Montreal.
The stories that emerged in Montreal are like those which the inquiry has heard across the country for nearly a year. They are stories of betrayal and of lives destroyed. They are stories of incompetence, negligence and indifference.
Bt early 1983, the Red Cross was aware that AIDS was likely transmitted through the blood supply. There was also evidence that the disease was prevalent among certain groups of people, including homosexual men and Haitians. Apparently intimidated by accusations of racism and gay-bashing, the Red Cross did not allow nurses at blood donor clinics to ask potential donors if they fell into high-risk groups. They relied on their intuition and surreptitiously disposed of blood if they suspected the donor might be homosexual, or otherwise high-risk. This was the science protecting our blood supply!
So deep was the commitment to protect us from tainted blood that the Red Cross opened a permanent blood donor clinic adjacent to Montreal’s “Gay Village.” The clinic ran for only three months in 1985 and was closed in large part because of the high rejection rate of donors. Aside from the obvious contempt for public health displayed by the Red Cross in opening at this location, it is also clear from this report that a large number of homosexuals were attempting to donate blood, despite appeals to refrain from doing so.
It was November 1985 before the Red Cross began screening blood donations for the virus associated with AIDS. That was two years after they became aware of the probability of contaminated blood. Worse than that, it appears that untested old stocks of blood were not destroyed.
Serious problems in the blood supply continued until at least 1987. Hemophiliacs receiving Factor 8 and other blood products often were not advised of their treatment options nor of the potential risks associated with their treatment. Some were tested for AIDS and hepatitis C without their knowledge or consent, and then were not informed of the results until many months later.
The disregard for the victims of tainted blood did not end in 1987. The Krever Commission heard that there are still two thousand patients of Montreal’s children’s hospitals that have not been informed that they may have received contaminated blood. Many of these patients are no longer children and may be placing others at risk through sexual contact, unaware that they may have been exposed to HIV.
The flagrant disregard for the public health and sheer contempt for the thousands of victims of tainted blood should not be dealt with lightly. Hopefully the Krever Commission will not be faint of heart and will recommend criminal prosecution for gross negligence.