Justice: Tainted Blood

Pillars of Democracy - Justice: Tainted Blood

Justice: Tainted Blood

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Twenty-five years ago, Canada began one of the most high-profile public inquiries in its history. In 1993 the Canadian government appointed Justice Horace Krever to investigate how the Canadian Red Cross and the health care system allowed Canadians to receive blood transfusions tainted with hepatitis C and HIV.

Over 30,000 Canadians were infected with hepatitis C and approximately 2000 Canadians were infected with HIV.

It was preventable.

In the 1980s, people, mostly young gay men, started dying from a disease that was destroying their immune systems. The medical community hadn’t yet figured out how the disease, dubbed “gay cancer”, was contracted. But one American epidemiologist was raising alarms. Loud ones.

Dr. Don Francis as Director of the Center for Disease Control AIDS Laboratory Activities in the 1980s.

Dr. Don Francis, with the Center for Disease Control, warned that the disease was transferred through blood, but his warnings were largely ignored, including by the Canadian Red Cross.

“It didn’t take long, with HIV, to see it was a blood borne illness. We saw that it was a sexually transmitted disease in gay men. But very rapidly came the transfusion cases, where a donor, usually a gay man, or a group of donors donated their blood and the person who received the transfusion came down with AIDS.” Dr. Don Francis

Thousands of people who died really without reason are just a negative tribute to their dullness and lack of response.

Watch full Dr. Don Francis interview

In 1984 some major blood banks in the U.S. started using a new test, called surrogate testing, to screen blood for hepatitis B, an indicator of HIV. But the Canadian Red Cross didn’t follow suit, deciding the $20 million price tag would only prevent a small number of cases.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the Canadian Red Cross started screening and testing donated blood for HIV.

Meantime, another virus was making its way into the blood system – hepatitis C.

Mike McCarthy received contaminated blood from an Arkansas prison in 1984. McCarthy, a hemophiliac, spent a lot of time in the hospital and required many blood transfusions. But new hope emerged in the late 1970s for McCarthy and tens of thousands of other hemophiliacs.

They had developed a miracle drug called Factor VIII that allowed me to inject myself with blood products that would allow me to lead a normal life.Mike McCarthy

Mike McCarthy received tainted blood in 1984

Soon after starting to use Factor VIII, McCarthy was identified as being at high risk of receiving tainted blood products. And, since the blood system wasn’t doing rigorous testing of the products, his physician recommended he stop taking the Factor VIII concentrate. For the next eight years, McCarthy had to go back to the old method of icing his bleeds.

As a young man, I became really frightened and really scared. That medicine that was supposed to give me a licence to live a full life was potentially going to kill me.Mike McCarthy

Watch full Mike McCarthy interview

Unfortunately, the precaution came too late. In 1992, McCarthy was told he didn’t get HIV tainted blood but that he had contracted hepatitis C.

“Nobody knew anything about hepatitis C in 1992 other than it was something that took years to kill you and at the time, you were just grateful that you didn’t get HIV because it killed everyone.”

“I felt like my life could move forward but I still needed to understand why I was infected with a potentially fatal virus.”Mike McCarthy

McCarthy wasn’t the only victim of the blood system who wanted answers. By the time the Krever Commission was announced, some 33,000 Canadians had received tainted blood through the Canadian blood system.

They didn’t implement a tool that could have reduced the risk of Canadians and it proved to be a fatal decision for people that relied on a safe blood product for transfusion.Mike McCarthy

In October of 1993, Justice Horace Krever was appointed to head the commission into the tainted blood tragedy in Canada. It was expected to last months. It lasted four years.

Journalist André Picard covered the tainted blood tragedy for the Globe and Mail

André Picard, a columnist and reporter at the Globe and Mail, followed the tainted blood tragedy closely. He is the author of “The Gift of Death: Confronting Canada’s Tainted Blood Tragedy”

“What we expected was a no nonsense, we are going to get the business done quickly [approach]. That’s probably what the government wanted.” André Picard

That inquiry really took on a life of its own.

Watch full André Picard interview

The Krever Report was tabled in the House of Commons on November 26, 1997. It came down hard on the Red Cross and on federal and provincial governments for ignoring warning and acting irresponsibly, even as HIV and hepatitis C transmissions continued. The report estimated 85% of the 30,000 hepatitis C infections from blood transfusions between 1986 and 1990 could have been prevented.

Krever Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada – Final Report

Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3 | Appendix

Justice Horace Krever

The Krever Commission report made a number of recommendations for changes to the Canadian blood system and called for compensation for all victims. But following release of the Krever report the federal government only offered compensation to victims who were infected between 1986 and 1990. Mike McCarthy, was not on that list.

Justice for victims harmed through the blood system – that had to be advocated by victims themselves who had to go to the police and the RCMP to ask for a probe or ask for charges and if that patient voice wasn’t active, even after Krever’s report, we wouldn’t have seen at least some justice…Mike McCarthy

On March 27, 1998, Health Minister Allan Rock held a press conference to release details about the federal government’s compensation package. The room was packed with victims of the tainted blood scandal, including victims like Mike McCarthy, who were not included on the government’s list for compensation. The so called “forgotten victims” reacted angrily to the government announcement, heckling and shouting “shame, shame” at the health minister, as he left the press conference room.

Former Federal Health Minister Allan Rock announcing compensation for victims who received tainted blood between 1986 and 1990.

On November 20, 2002, the RCMP laid criminal charges against the Canadian Red Cross, a U.S. based pharmaceutical company and four physicians for their role in the tainted blood tragedy.

Two and a half years later, the Red Cross pleaded guilty to distributing a contaminated drug. It paid a $5,000 fine and made a $1.5 million research donation.

The pharmaceutical company and the four doctors were acquitted of all charges.

On July 25, 2006, the federal government announced a $1 billion compensation package for 5,500 people – the “forgotten victims” who contacted hepatitis C before 1986 and 1990. Mike McCarthy was on that list.

The blood tragedy remains Canada’s worst preventable public health disaster.


For the victims of the tainted blood tragedy, the path to justice was a long and arduous one. What are some of the challenges Canadians are facing as they seek justice today? Journalist Denise Balkissoon, law professor Carissima Mathen (University of Ottawa), and Promise Holmes Skinner (Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto) join CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen for a look at the current state of justice in Canada.