The Red Cross actively encouraged people it knew were infected with Hepatitis C to continue to donate blood in defiance of basic principles of blood safety. As set out by World Health Organisation guidelines, a safe blood donor is healthy and has no risk factors for HIV or other infections. Knowingly including infected blood into a therapeutic setting is a basic breach. Elizabeth Minter reports Part II of the infected blood scandal investigation.
The Red Cross actively encouraged people it knew were infected with Hepatitis C to continue to donate blood in defiance of basic principles of blood safety. All the following stories were contained in submissions made to the 2004 Senate inquiry into Hepatitis C and the blood supply in Australia.
After a serious motorbike accident in 1983, Michael Pollack was transfused with blood contaminated with Hepatitis C. He only discovered he had the illness in 1990 after receiving a letter from the Red Cross following a blood donation.
The letter, dated July 11, 1990, asked him to keep donating even after he raised concerns about doing so.
The letter stated:
“The antibody screening test indicates that you may be carrying the Hepatitis C virus… A follow up at three months and six months is provided by the Blood Transfusion Service for donors with this kind of test result to establish whether or not they are still infected…
“While the investigation is proceeding, you may continue to give blood, which will be used for plasma fractionation.”
Pollack gave two more donations before deciding on ethical grounds to stop.
“I used to wonder how many people my blood had infected. Now I wonder how many people I have killed.”
Diane Poile was the recipient of such infected plasma. She was transfused in August 1990 following major surgery when 23 weeks pregnant.
Diane did not learn of her diagnosis until more than 12 months later when she started suffering health problems. Having lost her baby she was devastated to find out she had also contracted Hepatitis C.
Diane said she was never given an apology from the Red Cross.
“After seven years of stress and litigation and thousands of dollars I have not got anywhere.
“I have suffered for 13 years with health problems not to mention the upheaval in our lives trying to care for small children and manage our businesses.”
The family ended up selling the businesses because the workload was too great while she was constantly sick.
Diane said that while the Red Cross compensated some victims under a standard proposal she was not entitled to participate as her test was negative.
“So I am still carrying the virus but it was inactive at the time of testing. That is not at all fair as … it can become active.”
Then there was Helen Marija Skidzevicius, who had her gall bladder removed around 1987-88. Due to complications Helen bled internally and required a blood transfusion.
“About 6-12 months later I started to donate blood to the Red Cross when they came to Peterborough every three months. It felt it was my civic duty to pay back the blood they had given me as a free service. I continued to donate blood until about mid-1991.”
Helen then stopped giving blood because she started feeling generally very unwell and had constant colds.
In 2000, Helen decided to get vaccinated for Hepatitis B for personal reasons. She first needed to get a blood test to ensure she was free of hepatitis. When her doctor told her she had tested positive for Hepatitis C, she was shocked.
Helen said the Red Cross had not once notified her of the fact that she had been given contaminated blood. Helen said she was also distraught upon realising that she would have passed the illness on to other people as a result of her donating blood.
The recipients of infected blood
And it was people like Sue Bell and David Haag who were infected as a result of the Red Cross allowing Hepatitis C-infected people to continue to donate.
In 1991 David was given a blood transfusion due to anaemia.
“In 1994, my doctor did a test for Hepatitis C, after noticing high liver counts in my regular blood work for HIV/Aids monitoring. When it tested positive for HCV, we determined the only way I could have contracted the virus was through that transfusion.
Meanwhile, in May 1991, Sue Bell gave birth to her first (and only) child.
A few days after giving birth Sue experienced a strangulated bowel, which resulted in eight operations, four visits to Intensive Care and five months in hospital. She also received several transfusions. It was from her August 1991 transfusion that she was infected with Hepatitis-C. Sue only found this out nearly two years later, following routine blood tests.
Donors left devastated
Sue said she never had any direct contact with the Red Cross – had never received a formal or informal apology or any offer of counselling.
Like Michael Pollack, Helen Skidzevicius was also devastated after learning her infected blood had been given to patients.
“I know it was not my fault, but it eats away at me that my well-intentioned actions were so mis-used. Others are now suffering the trauma of being given my contaminated blood by the Red Cross.”
A specific test for Hepatitis C was available from 1990. Helen said she could not believe that the Red Cross continued to take her blood even when it knew the blood was contaminated.
Helen is also furious that the Red Cross did not notify her that she had Hepatitis C.
“There was a drug available that would ward off damaging effects to the liver, such as cancer. I was never given the chance to take this drug as I had no symptoms. It is at least 15 years ago that I was contaminated and it is too late for the drug to be effective for me.
“I am now doomed to suffer the effects to my liver.
“If the Red Cross had informed me years ago then I might have had a chance. Their silence has cost me dearly, it will probably cost me my life.”
Helen said her health had deteriorated over the years. She was constantly tired and not able to hold on to jobs, causing significant financial hardship.
No apology, nothing
David* raised similar concerns about the delay in finding out about his illness. Eleven years after receiving a blood transfusion, David found out by accident that he had Hepatitis C after a regular cholesterol check-up.
“In November 1988 I had major surgery requiring several sachets of blood. In November 1999, I had a check-up and an observant doctor ordered more blood tests. In March 2000 it was confirmed I had Hepatitis C probably as a result of the blood transfusion.
“The Red Cross Blood Service has never at any stage approached me or anybody on my behalf or offered any assistance or support concerning my acquiring Hep C from contaminated blood supplied by them at my operation.
“However, my main concern is that I found out … purely by accident. There could be tens of thousands of Australians who are carrying the virus totally unaware. The earlier a person with the virus is discovered and notified the better their prospects of extending their life span with treatment.”
Postscript: Michael West Media spoke to Sue Bell yesterday. She was one of the lucky ones. She managed to get treatment and made a full recovery but only after living for more than seven years with what she described as a death sentence hanging over her head.
Thousands of other victims have not been so lucky.
*Not his real name.
A 30-year veteran of the mainstream media, Liz was the editor of Michael West Media until June 2021. Liz began her career in journalism in 1990 and worked at The Age newspaper for two 10-year stints. She also worked at The Guardian newspaper in London for more than seven years. A former professional tennis player who represented Australia in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Letters (Hons).