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Tainted blood scandal
CBC News Online | May 30, 2005

"We've done the best we can under very difficult circumstances." The speaker – federal Health Minister Allan Rock. The date – Feb. 27, 1998.

The federal and provincial governments were releasing details of a $1.1-billion package to compensate people who had contracted hepatitis C from transfusions of tainted blood. The major catch – you had to be infected between 1986 and 1990 to qualify. Canada wasn't using a test that might have screened for the virus between those years.

The governments argued there was no test available to screen blood for the virus before 1986, so there was no way to protect the blood supply. After 1990, the governments said, all possible precautions were in place.

The offer came despite a recommendation by the report of the Krever Inquiry a year earlier, which called for compensation for anyone harmed by bad blood, regardless of when they were infected.

In just over two months, Ontario would break ranks, saying people who were infected before 1986 had waited long enough for help. The province came up with another $200 million for victims of tainted blood.

"Regardless of legal liability, all governments have a moral responsibility to Canadians who placed their faith in the blood system, and, through no fault of their own, became infected," Ontario Premier Mike Harris wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrιtien.

Harris urged the federal government to extend the package as per the Krever Report's recommendations.

The government had already offered money to people who contracted HIV from blood transfusions and tainted blood. On Dec. 14, 1989, Ottawa provided $150 million for 1,250 infected Canadians.

Four years later, Mr. Justice Horace Krever was asked to look into what went so wrong with the nation's blood supply in the 1980s. Krever's mandate was to "review and report on the mandate, organization, management, operations, financing, and regulation of all activities of the blood system in Canada, including the events surrounding the contamination of the blood system in Canada in the early 1980s."

Initially, the inquiry was ordered to submit its final report by Sept. 30, 1994, but the deadline was extended twice, first to Dec. 31, 1995, and then to Sept. 30, 1996. The budget of the inquiry was first set at $2.5 million but eventually grew to over $16 million.

As the inquiry got to work on Nov. 22, 1993, Krever promised that he would not be concerned with criminal or civil liability – but by November 1995, he said charges of misconduct might be brought forward at some point and that he had an obligation to warn people they might be accused of wrongdoing.

On Dec. 21, 1995, the public hearings phase of the inquiry ended. The commission sent out notices to the Red Cross, various governments and pharmaceutical companies informing them it wanted to levy charges of misconduct against people and agencies involved in the tainted blood scandal.

For the next five months, the inquiry ground to a halt as those who received notices went to court to have the notices quashed on the grounds that they violated Krever's pledge not to assess blame, and that they came at the end of hearings when it was no longer possible to challenge certain evidence.

In June 1996, a federal judge ruled that the Red Cross – and those who ran it in the early 1980s – could be named by the commission if Krever found they were to blame. The federal government, provincial health ministries, pharmaceutical companies and people who guided the blood system when the tainted transfusions occurred could also be named if they were deemed responsible.

The Inquiry wrapped up in December 1996. In July 1997, Allan Rock announced the Red Cross would not have a role in a new Canadian blood agency. After more than 50 years of running the country's blood system, the Red Cross would be reduced to recruiting blood donors.

Charges were eventually laid against the Red Cross, a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company and several doctors. The charges laid on Nov. 20, 2002, followed a five-year investigation by the RCMP. They alleged that the accused failed to properly screen blood donors, failed to test blood properly, and failed to warn the public that there were risks associated with blood products.

On May 30, 2005, the Red Cross pleaded guilty to a lesser charge – violating the Food and Drug Regulation Act by distributing an adulterated or contaminated drug. The agency was fined $5,000 – the maximum penalty for the offence under the act.

The secretary general of the Red Cross delivered a videotaped apology to the courtroom, accepting the organization's responsibility for its role in the tainted blood scandal.

The agency also agreed to give $1.5 million to the University of Ottawa to fund a scholarship program for family members of those affected and a research endowment fund.

In his report, Krever had recommended that all victims of the tainted blood tragedy be compensated, not just those covered by Ottawa's original package. That was back in 1997.

On April 20, 2005, the House of Commons approved a motion extending compensation to another 5,000 Canadians who contracted hepatitis C and HIV through tainted blood. The Conservative motion was passed unanimously. It extended compensation to people who had been excluded from a previous compensation package, which only covered people infected between 1986 and 1990.

Not as many people applied to the $1.1-billion fund as expected, leaving – perhaps – enough money for more than 5,000 people left out of that package.

Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh denied that Ottawa did the wrong thing by originally limiting compensation. Things have changed, he told reporters, and the time is right.

"While we are supporting the motion, we do so recognizing its limitations," said Dosanjh.

The government is trying to determine how much money is left and it hasn't set a deadline on when it will finish that review. As well, lawyers representing victims who fall within the original dates have said they may resist changes to the rules on eligibility and take the matter to court, further delaying possible compensation for Canadians who received transfusions of bad blood.


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The Krever Report: Canada's Tainted Blood Disaster



VIDEO: Dr. Pierre Duplessis, secretary general of the Canadian Red Cross delivered a videotaped apology, accepting the organization's responsibility for its role in the tainted blood scandal. (May 30, 2005 - Runs 1:40)



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Canadian Blood Services

Final report from the Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada (Krever Commission) (in pdf format)



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