Weird History
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The Real Story That Inspired 'Unspeakable' Is Even More Tragic Than The Show

Updated April 29, 2019 1.9k views15 items

Unspeakable, an eight-part original miniseries from CBC and SundanceTV, tells the story of the Canadian tainted blood scandal that rocked the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. As an untold number of Canadians received life-saving transfusions, they were unwittingly exposed to HIV and Hepatitis C. This led to one of Canada's biggest public health crises ever.

Based on the real-life tragedy of individuals involved, Unspeakable aired in early 2019. The true story behind Unspeakable is full of blame, greed, and unnecessary suffering, serving as a reminder of the international HIV crisis while simultaneously raising questions about the trust placed in the medical community and agencies tasked with public protection. 

Unspeakable offers a very different look at Canada - one that may shock you when you realize how such a horrific series of events came to fruition. 

  • Photo: CBC

    At Least 1,000 People May Have Contracted HIV From The Tainted Blood

    Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals contracted AIDS as a result of the tainted blood that entered Canada during the late 1970s and 1980s.

    One man, Randy Conners, a hemophiliac who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, passed the disease to his wife, Janet, in 1989. The Conners struggled after they both contracted the disease, especially after Randy was no longer able to work. As their own circumstances became increasingly difficult, they became advocates for those affected by the scandal, calling on the minister of health in Nova Scotia to compensate those afflicted.

    Their efforts were successful, something that brought Randy comfort as his disease progressed. "I used to worry that... no one would remember me," he said. "Now, I know that no matter what happens, Janet and I will have left a mark."

  • The Bureaucratic Structure Within Canada's Blood Services Was A Nightmare

    While the Canadian Red Cross took part in the hands-on distribution of blood in Canada, there was no uniformity in policy, procedure, or testing. The Health Protection Branch of the Department of National Health and Welfare, which housed the Bureau of Biologics, oversaw food, drugs, and environmental factors in Canada. The Bureau of Biologics, created in 1974, regulated all substances used in Canada and was divided into three parts, including the Blood Products Division.

    To make it even more confusing, there were provincial officials that established their own regulations and processes outside the scope of the federal government. 

    In 1981, the Canadian Blood Committee held its first meeting. It was established as a way to allow provinces to control their own blood services while working with the national Canadian Red Cross and the federal government. All it really did was lead to increased tensions among competing entities, however.

  • Photo: CBC

    Justice Horace Krever Released A Report On The Tainted Blood In 1997

    In 1993, Justice Horace Krever was tasked with heading a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Blood System in Canada. The so-called Krever Inquiry lasted four years and exposed the lack of unity, communication, and efficacy of blood donation, screening, and distribution in Canada. It also revealed the disregard for public health by numerous officials within the Canadian Red Cross, the federal government, and private corporations. 

    Krever's 1,200-page report, issued in 1997, highlighted the events that resulted in the unnecessary and tragic spread of AIDS and hepatitis that resulted from the use of tainted blood during the late 1970s and 1980s. The report detailed how Canadian entities neglected to screen sources, imported contaminated blood from the United States, intentionally failed to alert the public, and knowingly used at-risk materials.

  • Officials Neglected To Warn The Public About The Tainted Blood 

    As more and more concerns over blood obtained from the United States developed during the early 1980s, there was no effort to inform the Canadian public that any health risk existed. In the US, companies like Armour, Cutter, and Hyland all issued warnings about the risk of AIDS in their factor VIII fractionate in 1983 and 1984, but the products they'd sent to Canada before those warnings were issued predated those efforts.

    When the Canadian Red Cross heard about the warnings, it indicated that it "[did] not wish Cutter to include a statement referring to the possible transmission of AIDS" on its factor VIII products. Rather, in 1984, Canadian officials chose to use the low number of cases of AIDS among hemophiliacs in Canada as an indication that there was, in fact, no problem. Instead of calculating the risk of what tainted blood could do to Canadian recipients of it, they contrasted the 21 cases of AIDS among hemophiliacs in the United States and the two cases in Canada to indicate there was "no conclusive evidence directly linking" factor VIII concentrate and AIDS.

    This assertion failed to acknowledge that AIDS was a disease that manifested itself over time and there could be unreported or unknown cases among populations.