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1985: Canadian Red Cross begins testing blood donations for HIV

The Story

By 1985, five Canadians have developed AIDS as a result of receiving transfusions of tainted blood, and hundreds more have probably been infected with HIV. An antibody test is now readily available and the Canadian Red Cross plans to use it on all blood donations starting Nov. 4. But they have no idea how many more recipients will get AIDS from past transfusions of unscreened blood.

Medium: Television
Program: Sunday Report
Broadcast Date: Nov. 3, 1985
Guest(s): David Milligan, Jack Nusbacher
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Eve Savory
Duration: 3:11

Did You know?

• The test didn't detect the presence of AIDS or even of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Instead, it tested for the presence of HIV antibodies -- cells the human body creates to combat the virus. The same method to test for HIV is used today.

• Someone who tests positive for these antibodies is "HIV positive." That means they have the virus, but they may not get AIDS for many years. However, they can infect others during this period.

• The commercial test for HIV antibodies was licensed for use in the U.S. in March 1985, and testing of blood donations began there within weeks. Australia was using the test for all its blood donations by mid-May 1985.

• In Canada, the Red Cross didn't have a detailed plan for the implementation of testing until May 1985, even though they'd known since the previous August that a test was under development.

• The eight-month delay was attributed to many factors. The Canadian Blood Committee (comprised of senior federal and provincial health officials) took two months to review the budget for testing and didn't approve it until Aug. 1, 1985. There was also no method by which the Red Cross could obtain emergency funds, and it was reluctant to use its own cash reserves.

• Toronto epidemiologist Robert S. Remis has estimated that about 133 cases of HIV transmission could have been prevented had testing been introduced in March of 1985 rather than November.

• The incubation period for HIV is two to five years. That means an infected person could have had no symptoms yet and could have made multiple donations of blood without being aware of the infection.

• In March 1983 the Canadian Red Cross Society issued a press release advising "members of groups identified as being at high risk of carrying Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) not to give blood." They identified homosexual and bisexual males, recent Haitian immigrants and intravenous drug users as "high risk." Many gay activists and Haitians protested the "high risk" designation because they felt it branded them and made them targets for even more discrimination than they already faced.

• During the late 1970s and early 1980s, approximately 2,000 Canadians were infected with HIV from contaminated blood products and hundreds more contracted hepatitis C, even after tests were available for both diseases. The 1997 final report of the Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada (the Krever Inquiry) referred to this as "a public health disaster that was unprecedented in Canada." Since the scandal, blood operations have been turned over to Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Québec.

• The RCMP eventually laid charges related to the tainted blood scandal against the Red Cross in 2002. The charges included criminal negligence and common nuisance by endangering the public. 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, which was the maximum penalty for the offence under the act.


The Krever Report: Canada's Tainted Blood Disaster more