The Gift of Death

by Andre Picard,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0002554151

Bad Blood:
The Tragedy of the Canadian Tainted Blood Scandal

by Vic Parsons,
288 pages,
ISBN: 1895555515

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System of Blood
by Clive Cocking

Iadmire the restraint of Vic Parsons and André Picard in not allowing their writing voices to rise above reasoned condemnation in their complementary accounts of Canada's decade-long saga of tainted blood. Where the colossal botch-up of the spread of AIDS through the public blood system might have provoked others to scorch their pages with vituperation, they have instead allowed the facts, the statistics, the personal "horror stories" of the victims to emphasize why the system-wide failure is both a tragedy and a scandal of unprecedented scale.

There is, nonetheless, a strong current of passion in the writing of both. As the father of a haemophiliac son who contracted AIDS through contaminated blood products, Parsons, an Ottawa investigative reporter, is personally touched by the tragedy. Picard, a journalist with the Globe and Mail, has been emotionally affected by his contacts with many victims. Inspired by their strong social consciences, both writers have produced powerful exposés that help make what happened more understandable-and unforgivable.

In some ways, Bad Blood is the more harrowing account as Parsons focuses on those who were most dependent on the blood system, the nation's haemophiliacs, who effectively served like the "miner's canaries" giving early warning of contaminated blood. An early warning that was not heeded. Totally vulnerable, almost half ultimately contracted AIDS, some unwittingly infecting their spouses and even their unborn babies. Taking a broader approach, Picard's The Gift of Death goes beyond the impact on haemophiliacs to also examine the spread of AIDS through surgical blood transfusions, the breakdown of the system, the global connections, and to offer suggestions for reform. In step-by-step fashion, both books provide a mind-boggling description of the delays, negligence, bungling, buck-passing, in-fighting, coverups, and callous penny-pinching by public health officials, bureaucrats, and politicians that led to at least 1,200 Canadians being infected with AIDS from tainted blood-with many more expected to die as new cases are discovered.

Underlying all the shocking revelations here of individual and institutional failings are two recurring themes: that the public blood system was guilty of inexcusable lack of urgency and that it placed financial concerns ahead of the safety of the blood supply. The system did not respond swiftly to the best scientific evidence. Haemophiliacs were not adequately warned of the danger, some patients were never informed they were HIV-infected, and the testing of blood for HIV and screening of donors met with incomprehensible resistance and delay. Most scandalous of all (and to some of the victims, it borders on criminal negligence) was the decision to use up stocks of blood concentrates many knew to be contaminated before switching over to the new, heat-purified blood products. All these failures resulted in preventable deaths.

In summing up, Picard argues that a prevailing homophobia was the chief reason for these system-wide failings. "Health officials reacted swiftly to adulterated Tylenol, tainted tuna, Legionnaire's disease, even ersatz Cabbage Patch dolls, but when it came to tainted blood and blood products they demanded more proof that they should spend money-more proof that AIDS was a threat to `normal' people," he writes. "Diseases discriminate, but a public health system worthy of its name should not."

Vic Parsons and André Picard have both produced well-researched, forcefully written books that shed light on a shameful period in the history of our health system. With differing emphases, Bad Blood and The Gift of Death together constitute a primer for the final report of the Krever Commission, which is expected to be the most complete account of the tragedy. These books expose the mistakes and misdeeds of many public health officials and bureaucrats, but in the end both authors indict the system for utter failure-the organization that botched the supply of safe blood products, the Canadian Red Cross, and the non-regulating regulators, the Bureau of Biologics and the Canadian Blood Committee, later becoming the Canadian Blood Agency. Nothing less than a complete reorganization of the public blood supply system to make it more open, responsive, and accountable to its users, these writers conclude, will do to regain public trust in the safety of the service. That, they hope, will also be Mr. Justice Krever's conclusion.


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