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The deadly tainted-blood scandal is more shameful than Adscam Add to ...

In the recent outpouring of pre-election hyperbole, the sponsorship scandal has been described, among other things, as the "worst scandal in Canadian history."

Hold on a second.

The evidence at the Gomery inquiry has been damning and at times disgusting, with sordid tales of millions of dollars wasted on dubious advertising campaigns and allegations of kickbacks, bogus billings, and general sleaziness involving Liberal Party apparatchik and hangers-on.

But it's only money, and maybe a few political careers, that have been lost.

Yesterday, a determined but largely overlooked group of activists travelled to Ottawa to remind the press gallery that there is a much bigger and more devastating scandal that is ongoing -- that of tainted blood.

The combination of bureaucratic bungling, lax regulation, short-sighted politicking and penny-pinching, corporate greed and outright misrepresentation has been costly, not only in dollars but in lives.

Thousands of Canadians -- 2,000 who contracted HIV-AIDS and another 10,000 or so of those who contracted hepatitis C -- will die because they were exposed to transfusions of contaminated blood and blood products.

Many of those deaths were preventable, and would have been prevented had politicians and policy-makers shown leadership and initiative.

And every one of those lives

lost should concern us far more than the comparatively trivial sums funnelled to Liberal Party coffers.

We should not, of course, downplay or forgive the wrongdoing -- criminal and otherwise -- at the heart of the sponsorship scandal.

But as we witness the outrage surrounding the testimony at the Gomery inquiry, we should ask ourselves why there was not much more outrage at the revelations of the Krever inquiry.

After all, the failings were sweeping, the malfeasance widespread and the betrayal of public trust profound.

The tainted-blood scandal has long ago fallen from the headlines, so perhaps a reminder of some of the most egregious elements is in order. Consider the following:

In the two years between the time it became obvious that HIV-AIDS was blood-borne and an effective test was developed, attempts to protect the blood supply were "ineffective and half-hearted," according to Mr. Justice Horace Krever.

The public was lied to about the real risks of infection, told the risk was "one in a million" when it was as high as one in 166 for major surgery;

Blood products that were known to be unsafe were distributed to hemophiliacs to save money; in fact, lists were drawn up of patients who should get the inferior product;

The introduction of a test to detect hepatitis C in blood was delayed for four years. As many as 10,000 people may have been infected in that period;

More than $700-million was wasted on a fractionation plant that was to manufacture blood products. The technology was never up to snuff and thousands of litres of donated blood were wasted.

To make up for the shortfall, highly contaminated blood was purchased from U.S. prisons. (The plant was owned, in part, by the Canada Development Corporation, and Paul Martin was a board member when some of those decisions were made);

The Canadian Blood Committee, a group of senior health officials from the federal and provincial governments, systematically blocked the introduction of safety measures.

It also authorized the destruction of all transcripts and recordings of its meetings so it could not be scrutinized;

Thirty-two criminal charges have been laid against four individuals, a pharmaceutical company and the Red Cross. The trials have yet to begin;

About $1.4-billion has been spent to date compensating victims of tainted blood, but a large group of "forgotten victims" (those infected with hepatitis C prior to 1986) has still been left out.

The group of "forgotten victims" that surfaced in Ottawa won a small symbolic victory yesterday when Parliament unanimously passed a motion calling for compensation to be extended to everyone -- a mere eight years after Judge Krever recommended they do so.

It has been more than two

decades since the tragic events -- principally bureaucratic and political decisions and non-decisions -- at the heart of the tainted-blood scandal began. Yet no one, apart from a few hapless minor officials, has yet paid the price for those misdeeds and those crimes, least of all elected officials.

Monique Bégin, the former federal health minister, said it best: "Justice is offended if people at the top of government in bureaucratic structures are not held responsible for their actions, but employees at less senior levels of the hierarchy are. Moreover, public ethics requires that those at the top be accountable."

There is, in the wake of the Gomery inquiry, a perception that the public is irked and wants to "throw the bums out."

Doing so may well be justified. But bear in mind that there are politicians, public servants and contractors with blood on their hands, not just with their fingers in the kitty.

 

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