When it comes to examining how HIV-infected blood was allowed to enter the U.S. blood-donor supply, the “Frontline” report “AIDS, Blood and Politics” (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24) may be practicing some Monday-morning quarterbacking.
That doesn’t mean that the story producer Carole Langer pieces together isn’t legitimate; in fact, she pieces together a tragedy of incompetence, naivete and denial. But there will be those groups--ranging from blood plasma manufacturers to gay activists to blood-donor institutions--that plead that they didn’t know. They didn’t know that blood plasma being used by hemophiliac patients was infected with HIV. They didn’t know that the risk was so great. They didn’t even know, for a while, what it was that they were dealing with.
Langer’s report documents, however, that these groups and medical experts in the Food and Drug Administration successfully delayed, in the critical years of 1983-84, thorough testing of blood donations to ensure that the national blood supply was free of HIV infection. Gay activists protested that gay men would feel discriminated against and that, in any case, they would lie about their sexual practices. Plasma companies quietly engineered the delaying tactic known as the “task force” that found, after more deaths and time wasted, that there wasn’t a threat to the blood supply after all, and thus, no need for a test.
As Donald Drake, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s medical reporter, notes, interest groups can and usually do succeed when their interests clash with the public welfare. But, as if the testing scandal isn’t enough, Langer also portrays a blood-donor system, led by the American Red Cross, as unaccountably derelict in its ethical duty to ensure safe blood.
FDA inspection agents such as Mary Carden have repeatedly found Red Cross and other blood banks to be violating the voluntary 1988 guidelines the FDA set down for HIV testing. She has had special problems with the Red Cross’ Portland, Ore., facility, but failures to notify recipients of HIV-contaminated blood also have been shown in a Red Cross donor office in Los Angeles.
What should not get lost in this program’s welter of testimony, documents and pallid defenses of medical stupidity is an alleged, extraordinary ethical violation of the public trust.