Blackpool grandma left with 'the liver of a life-long drug addict' after being infected with hepatitis C by contaminated blood transfusion

A Blackpool grandma who fell victim to one of the biggest scandals in NHS history says she hopes she will live to see justice done.

Saturday, 13th November 2021, 4:55 am

For 35 years, Dawn Zerbatini had no idea that she had been infected with hepatitis C after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion at Blackpool Victoria Hospital following the birth of her daughter in 1984.

The 61-year-old grandma-of-three only found out the truth during a routine well-woman appointment in August 2017.

She said: “They found a lot of scarring on my liver, and they couldn’t work out why I had it. I hardly ever drink - but I had the liver of a life-long cocaine addict.

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Dawn Zerbatini is one of an estimated 30,000 victims of the NHS contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s

“The doctors thought I looked healthy. When I went into Blackpool Vic, I remember the doctor saying to me they would do a hep C test, but they didn’t think for one moment I really had it.

“When I finally found out, I was devastated. The damage on my liver was irreversible. I didn’t know anything about hep C, but when you’re sitting there in the Macmillan Centre, with a doctor telling you you’re not going to get better, you think the worst.”

As many as 30,000 people are believed to have received contaminated blood transfusions in the NHS throughout the 1970s and 80s.

The blood, which had been brought in from prisoners in America to keep up with the UK’s high demand, was later discovered to contain hepatitis C, a liver-affecting virus which can be fatal if left untreated, and HIV.

An inquiry into the alleged cover-up started in 2019 following years of tireless campaigns from victims and their families. In Marchthis year, Government officials finally accepted responsibilit, and announced a compensation framework review for living victims and the spouses of those who died.

Dawn is one of 300 survivors currently giving evidence in the next phase of the review, looking at evidence relating to the blood and transfusion services across the UK, as well as blood transfusion policy and practice.

However, the inqury is expected to go on for years - precious time which Dawn, as a result of the disease she was given, does not have.

“It should have been addressed sooner. I think somebody should be accountable for what happened,” she said.

“I often wonder if I’m the only person in Blackpool it happened to. Are there other victims, sitting at home with this disease inside them, who don’t even know they have it?

“I hope that they learn from mistakes they made, and that this never happens again.

“This blood was taken from prisoners, not only in America but in Britain as well, it wasn’t screened, it was all mixed together and given out to patients - all to save a bit of money. The court heard a simple test would have cost just £1.30 today. That could have saved lives.

“Hopefully I will be here for the end of the inquiry. But it’s going to carry on until the end of 2023. Every time I arrive at court, there’s somebody missing.

“There are a lot of people here who are very, very poorly, and it’s because we have been left so long. The longer it’s left untreated, the worse it’s going to be.”

Following her shock diagnosis, Dawn had medical treatment to clear her viral load - but was left a long term heart problem and liver scarring.

She was forced to give up her work in a Boots pharmacy because of her health problems.

She said: “I was absolutely, massively exhausted. I tried to be there every week and carry on, but sometimes I’d almost be throwing up and someone would have to take me home. I struggled in lots of ways, but I wanted to be stoic and carry on living a normal life - I still do.

“I was in absolute agony on my feet and I couldn’t get much farther than the end of the street. I’ve had a terrible cough. Lots of things I used to take for granted I just can’t do any more.

“I used to be quite a confident, outgoing person. I’m not quite that same person any more.”

Dawn is not the only person on the Fylde coast to have suffered as a result of a contaminated blood transfusion at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

Paul Birch, 59, of Rock Street, died in January 2017 of cancer caused by hepatitis C which he got from a transfusion in the 70s.

He had no idea he had contracted the potentially deadly virus until 2011.

His daughter Rebecca told The Gazette: “Rebecca said: “He was very ill. He couldn’t get out of bed. He was dead to the world.

“He was in hospital pretty much every other month and just went downhill from there. I knew as soon as he got diagnosed with cancer he didn’t have long to live.

“He couldn’t do anything. He had to stop work. He was as yellow as butter because of the jaundice. It was horrible to see. He was a big, hefty guy and it reduced him to nothing, all because they took 40 years to tell him.”

The NHS blood scandal officially came to an end in 1991, when new rules were introduced requiring all blood products to be screened before use.

But this process came too late for the victims - many of whom were never sought out by the NHS for check-ups following the discovery of the contamination.

Dawn, who lives on Ribchester Avenue, said: “I know my liver’s not going to get better. There are two victims I know of who are on the transplant list. But I have got heart problems, so that might not be an option for me.

“Before Christmas I sat down with my daughter and talked about what would happen when I’m gone.

“I had my bucket list year in 2019. I’m mad on Disney, so the whole family went to Disneyland Paris and had a wonderful couple of days. For my 60th I went to New York. I didn’t know if I would be well enough, but I managed it.

“I do what I can with the time I have left. It’s important for me to be able to join in with my family. I want them to have happy memories of me.”

She added: “I worry about other people, thinking there must be others like me, who don’t know they are walking around with hep C, which is slowly destroying their organs. All people need to be tested, regardless of the cut-off date of September 1991, for compensation for people affected by the scandal. Family is my life, and I live for my family. I only hope I’m here to see the hearing through to the end.”

VICTIMS 'WAITED MANY YEARS' FOR JUSTICE

Emma Jones, of Leigh Day soliticors, representing some 300 blood scandal victims, welcomed the new phase of the inquiry examining how the contaminated blood found its way into the UK’s supply.

She said:“Many of the people we represent were infected as a result of a transfusion. The Inquiry will now be focusing on these people and we want to acknowledge that on their behalf.

“Although our clients have been able to have their say and tell their own stories in the earlier hearings, this will be the first time that they will hear from those representing the organisations that were responsible for giving them their transfusions of contaminated blood. They have been waiting many years to hear those organisations give an account of why it was that contaminated blood found its way into the blood banks of the UK and we welcome the fact that that moment has finally arrived.”

Leigh Day solicitor Beatrice Morgan added: “We hope the Inquiry will identify common themes across different blood transfusion centres, possibly relating to the way blood was stored, how records were kept, and batch numbers tracked. Our clients look forward to finding out more about how and why so many people received contaminated blood transfusions over such a long period of time without the risks coming to light, and for many, why it took so long (sometimes decades) for them to be diagnosed.”

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