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Red Cross denies link between AIDS and blood products

A new disease was threatening the Canadian blood supply in the early 1980s: AIDS. But the Canadian Red Cross was slow to introduce donor screening methods and even slower to test the blood. With the Krever Commission, those infected by the AIDS virus and hepatitis C found a compassionate ear and the answers they sought about who was to blame for this public health scandal.

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"Imported blood raises concern of AIDS to B.C. hemophiliacs." It's 1984, and according to a Vancouver newspaper, the Canadian Red Cross Society is importing blood products from the United States. The incidence of AIDS is much higher across the border, and there has been speculation that the little-understood but deadly disease can be transmitted through blood. For hemophiliacs, whose lives depend on blood products, the revelation presents a tough choice: risk contracting AIDS or risk bleeding to death?

The Canadian Red Cross Society responds with a press conference to reassure Canadians there's no evidence AIDS has been transmitted by a blood product. It says the blood supply is safe -- and besides, blood is tested before it's used. CBC reporter Gillian Findlay talks to a hemophiliac who says he's not worried about using blood products, and a Red Cross official who says his organization has a duty to reduce fear for hemophiliacs.
• Hemophilia is a genetically acquired disease in which the blood does not clot properly. Until treatments were developed in the 1950s, sufferers had a life expectancy of about half the norm and a compromised quality of life. In the 1970s, new blood products called factor concentrates were introduced. Hemophiliacs could administer the treatment at home and lead virtually normal lives.

• In hemophilia patients, the disease can be mild, moderate or severe. Those with the mild form may rarely need blood products, while some severe hemophiliacs inject factor concentrates -- which help the blood to clot -- as a preventive therapy.

• In 1978-80, usage of factor concentrates in severe hemophiliacs in Canada ranged from 10,000 to 100,000 units each.

• Each dose of factor concentrate contains blood components from up to 20,000 different donors.

• The Canadian Red Cross Society was founded in 1896 as a branch of the British Red Cross Society. It supported military medical services during wars in which Canada played a part.

• The Red Cross began its donor service in 1940 as part of the war effort. In 1945, it continued and expanded this service, collecting blood from volunteers and providing it free to hospitals.

• Provinces paid to establish a blood centre, but staff and equipment were paid for by the Red Cross.

• At the time of this clip, two branches of the Red Cross were involved in Canada's blood system. The blood transfusion service took blood from donors, tested it for syphilis and hepatitis B -- but not AIDS -- and distributed it to hospitals after separating it into components. The Red Cross's donor recruitment program sought out volunteers to give blood, screened them to make sure they were eligible donors and monitored them immediately after the donation.

• In March 1983, the Red Cross asked people from groups at high risk of AIDS -- homosexual men with multiple partners, recent Haitian immigrants, and intravenous drug users - not to donate blood.

• One year later, the screening of blood donors consisted of simply asking if they were in good health. Red Cross directors were concerned that more aggressive screening would alienate donors and threaten the blood supply. It would also discriminate against gays -- a contravention of International Red Cross policy.

• Doctors first became aware of a possible link between AIDS and blood transfusions in December 1982. In January 1984, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine described 18 cases of transfusion-associated AIDS in the United States and concluded that AIDS could be transmitted in blood products. A medical official at the Canadian Red Cross considered this "only as a statement that increased the odds considerably," not definitive proof that AIDS could be passed through blood.

• In May 1984, the Red Cross began circulating a pamphlet at its 17 blood centres across Canada. The pamphlet described AIDS, said there was evidence it was "probably blood borne" and outlined the high-risk groups that should not donate blood. However, donors did not have to acknowledge they'd read the pamphlet and were not asked any questions that might rule them out as blood donors.
Medium: Television
Program: Newscentre
Broadcast Date: March 15, 1984
Guest(s): Noel Buskard, Bill Rudd
Reporter: Gillian Findlay
Duration: 2:01

Last updated: May 22, 2013

Page consulted on April 4, 2014

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