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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Lord Owen pursues the matter of the HIV contaminated blood scandal.

Former minister raises fear of HIV blood cover-up - Guardian


"New concerns are raised today that government officials attempted to cover up evidence that they could have stopped thousands of people becoming infected with HIV from contaminated blood supplies. Lord Owen, who was a Labour health minister in the 1970s, says he has unearthed the first concrete proof that officials knew more than 30 years ago that there was an increased risk of contracting hepatitis from imported blood products.

More than 1,700 people went on to die and many are terminally ill after contracting hepatitis C and then HIV from infected blood during treatment for haemophilia in the 1970s and 80s. Lord Owen, who as health minister pledged that Britain would no longer import blood products, has found a document from the Department of Health which shows officials knew in February 1976 that imported blood products were "more costly" to the NHS and came with a "higher hepatitis risk" - something that has been consistently denied.

The discovery comes ahead of Lord Owen's appearance today at the independent public inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal, chaired by the former solicitor-general Lord Archer of Sandwell. Lord Owen is expected to query why several volumes of documents relating to the issue were destroyed at a time when a similar HIV-tainted blood scandal was erupting in France. "This may be a coincidence - but it may also be a reason why the documents were destroyed. The inquiry will find out if there is any deliberate cover-up or simply maladministration."

As health minister from 1974 to 1976 the then David Owen was concerned about the hepatitis risk when he pledged Britain should stop importing blood products in January 1975. For more than 20 years he has repeatedly been told by officials that there was no known risk. Describing the document as a gem, Lord Owen said: "We now at last have actual evidence from the department that corroborates ... that we knew [the imported product] was more likely to be contaminated. What is important is that here they are in February 1976 - and they more or less concede every argument: it is cheaper to go for self-sufficiency and there is higher hepatitis risk [from imported products]."

Since 1988 Lord Owen, who went on to become foreign secretary before later leading the SDP, has battled to see evidence backing up what he was told by doctors and officials at the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) during his time as health minister. The DHSS pulped his official papers 10 years after he left the department, without telling him - an action he describes as "inexplicable"."

I do hope that there will be no further cover-up of this disgraceful episode.