By Catherine Masters
Dying and ill victims of a contaminated- blood scandal will stage a vigil on Parliament steps tomorrow night in an attempt to shame the Government.
At least 18 people have died after contracting hepatitis C from blood transfusions in New Zealand hospitals, but lawyers say deaths are hard to trace and the number could be much higher.
More than 600 have been infected with the so-called bad blood.
Victims claim the infection - which leads to potentially fatal liver disease - could have been prevented if the Government had introduced blood screening years earlier than it did.
They want an apology from the Government and millions of dollars more in compensation than the "paltry" $20,000-odd that some have been offered.
The victims say politicians have ducked and stalled over the years and accuse the Minister of Health, Wyatt Creech, of refusing even to meet them.
Labour leader Helen Clark was Health Minister when officials advised in August 1990 that mandatory testing for hepatitis C in blood products should be done.
But testing did not start until July 1992 (350,000 transfusions later) under then minister Simon Upton, who had resisted calls to resign over the issue. Two years later Mr Upton's successor in the portfolio, Jenny Shipley, ordered an inquiry to find those 350,000 patients, but said at the time that the issue of compensation was between any found to be infected and the Accident Rehabilitation and Compensation Insurance Corporation.
Victims say the Government knew in 1980 that the blood supply was contaminated but did not introduce blood screening until 1992, despite the technology being available a decade earlier.
A Government spokesman said offers had been made to people infected between 1990 and 1992 to express the Government's regret for the harm they had suffered. "The Government's advice has consistently been that it is under no legal liability in respect of these claims."
Lawyer Linda Kaye said the issue was justice, not law, and settlements in Australia and Canada had reached substantially higher amounts than $20,000.
"It's a question of moral responsibility and that's the way it has been judged overseas where other governments have accepted their responsibility and properly compensated victims."
Victims include Henderson man John Kerr, aged 46, who survived a bad car accident and leukaemia only to be infected with hepatitis C. He has raised another mortgage to cope financially and is too weak to play with his two young sons.
Manurewa woman Julie Birch says her family hae been forced to buy a cheaper house and Westport woman Jessica Adamson, who contracted hepatitis C during a triple bypass operation, says living with the illness is "hell."
By Catherine Masters