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A Look Back At Canada’s Tainted Blood Scandal
October 4, 2013
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Justice Horace Krever (Photo: CBC News/Archives)

In the early 1980s, about 2,000 Canadians were infected with HIV from tainted blood products. Many thousand more, perhaps as many as 30,000, were infected with hepatitis C. And so 20 years ago today, the Privy Council issued an order calling for the creation of a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada —  better known as the Krever Inquiry.

Although AIDS was first reported in Canada on March 27, 1982, it took three years for the Canadian Red Cross Society, which administered the nation's blood donation system, to start screening for HIV. But as Justice Horace Krever detailed in his 1,200-plus page report, the blame for what he called a "nationwide public health calamity" didn't simply lie with one institution reacting too slowly to a deadly emerging disease. He found that there was plenty of blame to go around.

One of the key witnesses called by the Krever commission was Dr. Don Francis, a distinguished epidemiologist who was among the first to suggest that AIDS might be caused by an infectious agent. Dr. Francis recently sat down with George to talk about his life and work:

Look out for George's full interview with Dr. Francis, which will air later this season.

After months of hearings (which included tearful statements from victims) and years of investigations and legal wrangling over the commission's ability to name names, Justice Krever released his landmark report in 1997. Fundamentally, he found that the relationship between the Red Cross and the federal and provincial governments was dysfunctional, and as a result, the country lacked a national blood policy.

That lack of a clear policy, he found, resulted in a series of disastrous decisions, including importing plasma collected from high-risk prison populations in the U.S.; not using a test that may have caught as many as 90 per cent of hepatitis C cases; delaying the purchase of safer, heat-treated blood products for hemophiliacs out of a desire to use up the potentially contaminated products; and a failure to track down all those who might have been infected.

In the wake of the report, the Red Cross was stripped of its control over the blood program, and a new federal agency, Canadian Blood Services, was established to operate at arms length from the government (except in Quebec, where Héma-Québec was established). In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the Red Cross was negligent in the early days of the AIDS crisis, especially in comparison with how authorities in the U.S. dealt with the emerging disease. The federal government was quick to offer compensation to Canadians infected with HIV (the first package was offered in 1989), although it took many years and several legal battles before all Canadians infected with hepatitis C received compensation. The total payout from governments, the Red Cross and insurance companies was in the billions of dollars.

Tainted, a new play which opened in Toronto in September, follows the travails of one family dealing with the fallout from the tainted blood scandal. Based on interviews that the playwright, Kat Lanteigne, conducted over many years with survivors, it tells the story of three brothers, all hemophiliacs, who are infected with both HIV and hepatitis C. The play runs until October 12 at the Aki Studio Theatre in Toronto, and after tonight's and tomorrow's performances, Dr. Don Francis and Canadian blood safety advocate Michael McCarthy will conduct a panel discussion. Check out the play's website for more information.

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