Like bulletins from a battlefront, the news about Canada’s tainted blood scandal keeps getting worse. Of the more than 1,000 Canadians who contracted AIDS through contaminated transfusions in the 1980s, about 850 accepted compensation in 1994, while 30 others have launched lawsuits against the Red Cross. Two of those cases are scheduled to begin in Toronto this week. But it now appears that at least 12,000 other Canadians received blood containing hepatitis C, a chronic, potentially lethal virus that attacks the liver. Symptoms—which can lie dormant for 10 to 30 years or appear immediately—include debilitating fatigue, impaired mental functioning, hemorrhaging
and, finally, liver failure. "All the attention paid to AIDS will pale by the time hepatitis C is in full bloom," predicts Herb Moeller, 49, a Vancouver vice-president of the Hepatitis C Survivors Society.
So far, fewer than 100 of those with hepatitis Chave launched individual lawsuits. Many are awaiting the outcome of the ongoing public inquiry into the tainted blood scandal, which they believe will help clear the legal fog that has enveloped the issue of responsibility since it first erupted in the mid-1980s. While they wait, lawyers are drafting class-action suits, a process that allows one plaintiff to argue a case on behalf of all those who may be directly affected by the result. Ottawa lawyer Pierre Lavigne, who is co-counsel on one such suit in Quebec, says that it will be brought against the federal government, Quebec and the Red Cross, because all participated in the decision not to test blood for the presence of the hepatitis C virus. Such tests were adopted by U.S. authorities in 1986, but Canada decided the same year to merely study their effectiveness. Canada began to test for the virus in 1990.
Many hepatitis C victims are particularly angered by that decision, because the AIDS debacle had already alerted officials to the potential impact of contaminated blood. They are also concerned that the slow, if unrelenting, progress of the hepatitis C infection may obscure its tragic impact.
Moeller jokes that he felt lucky to get the “slow one” when he learned he had hepatitis C, not HIV, after multiple transfusions in the early 1980s. But he is dead serious when he talks about the need for establishing a clear trail of responsibility for tainted blood. “Politicians and bureaucrats have lost sight of doing the right thing," he says. “Covering their ass— that’s what they think the right thing to do is.”
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