WASHINGTON -- A group of Canadian hemophiliacs who say they contracted hepatitis C and HIV from contaminated blood plasma originating in Arkansas and Louisiana prisons during the 1980s journeyed to Washington Wednesday to demand a criminal investigation by the United States Department of Justice into the scandal. Department officials did not immediately respond. The Canadians are asking why certain American prison systems, including one in Grady, Ark., during then-Gov. Bill Clinton's tenure, continued to export plasma long after the sale of such products had ceased inside the U.S. itself.
"Why, if this dangerous plasma wasn't safe enough for American use, was it suitable for your neighbors?" asked Michael McCarthy, a 39-year-old Canadian hemophiliac who says he contracted hepatitis C from using blood products in the early 1980s.
Last month, McCarthy and a group of about 1,000 Canadian hemophiliacs filed a $660 million class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government and two Canadian companies -- Continental Pharma Cryosan, the importer of the plasma, and Connaught Laboratories Ltd., which used the plasma to make blood products.
Now, the Canadians are preparing a lawsuit against the alleged American participants in the scandal. David Harvey, lead counsel for the Canadians, said he is seeking a deposition of President Clinton into what occurred in the Arkansas prison system while he was governor during the 1980s.
The lawsuit, which may be filed within the next two weeks, will seek damages in the billion-dollar range, and will reportedly name the Food and Drug Administration, the states of Arkansas and Louisiana, the prison systems of those two states and the medical care providers of the inmates in those systems, including Health Management Associates. The suit could also name the president if evidence is found that Clinton knew about repeated FDA violations and international plasma recalls, yet failed to exercise his executive power to shut down the Arkansas Department of Correction plasma industry.
Attorneys are therefore seeking 400 cases of Clinton's papers, which may shed further light on Arkansas's plasma export scandal.
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the White House, said, "In the early '80s, there was no testing for hepatitis C or AIDS. Those kind of testing methods came into being much later, so there was no way that the president could have known that the blood was tainted."
Crowley added, "Whatever the arrangement was between the Arkansas prison system [and] HMA, I would defer to the state of Arkansas to comment." Crowley would not say whether the president was even aware of the plasma program's existence.
New York attorney Mark Bern is representing Arkansas inmates who say they were infected with hepatitis C and HIV while selling plasma in the prison. Because of unsanitary practices in the plasma center, workers in the program contaminated the donor by using dirty needles. He plans on filing a class-action lawsuit against the state of Arkansas and Health Management Associates, which ran the plasma program and provided inmate health care, and other participants in the scandal.
In other countries, tainted blood scandals have resulted in government officials standing trial. On Feb. 10, France put a former prime minister and two other former Cabinet members on trial on charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence in a scandal over HIV-tainted blood.
In the 1990s, two Japanese health ministers have issued formal apologies on behalf of their government, while senior executives in the country's blood transfusion service were disciplined or dismissed and criminal charges of professional negligence were brought against five top officials.
Germany has also dealt with a blood scandal in recent years. In 1993, Health Minister Horst Seehofer recommended that anybody who had received blood products since 1982 undergo an HIV test.
The Canadians are now focusing on those who made money on the blood exports. "The billion-dollar players clearly knew the blood was unsafe," said Judith Reitman, a journalist who wrote "Bad Blood: Crisis in the American Red Cross." "There was, and is, a mind-set that profits are more important than public health and safety. This is a grave public concern and accountability must occur."
The FDA says that it was perfectly legal to operate prison plasma centers and that for years no tests existed to screen for AIDS or hepatitis C, then known as non-A non-B hepatitis and a common indicator of HIV. But in 1982, the FDA ruled that prison plasma was too risky for domestic production of hemophilia products. Nevertheless, the plasma was still allowed to be exported to a Montreal broker, who in turn shipped the plasma throughout Canada and overseas. In Arkansas, numerous FDA violations and shut-downs at Cummins prison failed to permanently halt the drawing of plasma from inmates. Prison officials have stated that the inmates needed the money they earned (at $7 a pint) to buy cigarettes and toiletries.
"The plasma was sold on the 'spot' market," explains Mike Galster, the author of a fictional account, called "Blood Trail," about the Arkansas Department of Correction's plasma program. "What is not to say it came back to the United States?"
An internal memo from pharmaceutical giant Cutter Laboratories (which had bought plasma from the Arkansas prisons for 20 years until 1982) illustrates the attitude of those involved in the blood trade at the time. "Take no extraordinary actions. There are no data to support the emotional arguments that prison plasma collected from adequately screened prisoners is 'bad.' To exclude such plasma from manufacturer of our coagulation product would only be a sop or gratuity to the Gay Rights [sic] and would presage further pressure to exclude plasma collected from the Mexican border and the paid donor."
Inmates were considered a high-risk group because of previous intravenous drug use as well as the homosexual activities common in prisons. A 1984 information bulletin about prison plasma centers published by the American Correctional Association listed six states -- Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Nevada and Missouri -- as running programs at that time. The Arkansas Department of Corrections continued running its plasma program for another 10 years -- until 1994.
As a result, at least 1,000 people now say they are victims of diseases that could have been avoided.
"Why was it," asks plaintiff Michael McCarthy, "that we became the dumping ground for your poison?"