Hepatitis C victims ready to sue

More than 60 haemophiliacs have instructed solicitors to seek compensation from the Government after they were infected with the hepatitis C virus from contaminated blood products.

According to Graham Ross, one of the solicitors, more are expected to join the litigation since the Independent revealed that thousands have been infected with the virus which causes liver disease. ``We have received many calls in the past two days,'' said Mr Ross, who led the haemophiliacs' case against the Government over HIV infection. This resulted in a pounds 42m settlement in 1991.

However, the claims for damages in the hepatitis cases could face a legal difficulty. Mr Ross said that in 1991, as part of the HIV settlement, the clients agreed to a government clause ``whereby haemophiliacs would agree not to pursue any claims for hepatitis infection prior to the settlement''.

He said: ``On the basis of present knowledge it is questionable whether haemophiliacs would have accepted at that time the condition attached to the settlement.

``The Government claims in the Independent that `patients received the best available treatment in the light of medical knowledge at the time'.

``It has to be acknowledged that at the time the HIV settlement was reached the state of medical and scientific knowledge of the relative effects of HIV and hepatitis infections were markedly different to what they are today.

``At the time HIV was by far and away the most serious condition and was felt to lead to early death. Hepatitis C was felt to be something that could be lived with.

``We now have a situation where HIV is no longer an early death sentence. On the other hand hepatitis C is being seen to be more dangerous than at first felt with 12 haemophiliacs dying last year.''

About 2,000 haemophiliacs who used the blood-clotting agent Factor VIII, and 3,000 patients who are not haemophiliacs who received transfusions of fresh blood, are said to be infected with Hepatitis C. This happened before the blood transfusion service took steps to protect blood supplies.

Mr Ross said that the existence of hepatitis infection in blood products was known about before the HIV problems came to light. ``It was an important part of our case. We argued that they were negligent because they knew about hepatitis B and about non-A non-B hepatitis [later indentified as hepatitis C]. Had they stopped importing these blood products from the United States then the HIV infections would not have happened.''