Published: 07/04/2014 12:47 - Updated: 07/04/2014 13:10

Lifting the veil on a health scare scandal

Stewart Porter and Matthew Zajac portray victims of contaminated blood in Factor 9.
Stewart Porter and Matthew Zajac portray victims of contaminated blood in Factor 9.

IT was over a pie and Bovril at a Caley Thistle home game that the idea for Dogstar Theatre’s latest play Factor 9, took shape.

Based in large part on the experiences of Black Isle man Bruce Norval, one of an estimated 5000 people in the UK alone who has been forced to live with the consequences of being given contaminated blood, it was a natural subject for the Inverness-based Dogstar team of playwright Hamish MacDonald and actor Matthew Zajac.

"Although this is something that hasn’t affected our own families directly, it is something that has been very close to home," MacDonald explained.

"Bruce occasionally meets up with Matthew and I at Inverness Caley home games, so the thing evolved out of discussions at half-time. Bruce would tell us more and more about his own story and he was keen for the story to be told."

Factor 9, which has already been performed to great acclaim in Sweden, Denmark and Wales, comes to Scotland just a month before the publication of an official report by Lord Penrose into the use of contaminated blood products by the NHS in the 1970s and 1980s. Thousands of haemophiliacs, like Norval, and other patients infected by hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)

The UK is not alone in being affected by what Norval calls "the largest and most complete disaster in medical history".

Some 18,000 people worldwide are believed to have died as a result of receiving contaminated blood.

"It’s not really a life-affirming story," MacDonald admitted.

"It’s a tragedy and in many ways a hidden tragedy. Dan Farthing of Haemophilia Scotland said that if all these people had been killed in one day in an accident, this would be at the forefront of our consciousness, but because it’s happened over a period of time, very few people are aware of it."

Getting to the truth behind the scandal has not been easy and MacDonald paid tribute to Norval and fellow victim Robert Mackie from the Borders — both of whom appear as characters in the play — and other campaigners for their determination not to see the scandal ignored and forgotten.

"There have been a lot of cover-ups along the way that are really quite outrageous," MacDonald stated.

"There is a whole trail of corruption and criminality and ethical malpractice. This is a true story that doesn’t need any embellishment to make it dramatic."

In Mackie’s case he was one of a group of Edinburgh haemophiliacs being secretly monitored after receiving contaminated blod. Shockingly Mackie was only informed he had the HIV virus in January 1987, almost three years after he was diagnosed.

Bruce Norval and his wife Christine have already seen the play at its debut performance in Umea in Sweden and for MacDonald the greatest endorsement of the play has been the reaction of Norval to the way he and the rest of the Dogstar team, including actors Matthew Zajac (Bruce) and Stewart Porter (Rab) and director Ben Harrison, had presented their story.

"The set has been beautifully constructed by Emily James — it looks like an abandoned hospital ward — and there’s a great score by Pippa Murphy," MacDonald said.

"Then there are the stories of the guys themselves. They haven’t allowed themselves to be defeated. Had they not fought on, there would be no inquiries, there would have been no press coverage. This thing would have been swept off the record, so there is an inspirational side to the story. It’s very humbling to be involved in telling their stories and how the course of their lives were changed so dramatically."

In writing the story for the stage, MacDonald admitted that at times he had to walk any or sometimes even roar with anger and disbelief at what had happened to people like Norval and Mackie and their betrayal by the system that was meant to care for them.

"We’re not learning about something that happened in a war or genocide. This is about health care and our health system, quite rightly, is held in such regard, that makes it all the more difficult," he said.

"We want as many people as possible to come and share this story. That was the whole point of doing it, getting the story out there. And for all of us to share some of the despair, if you like. I know none of us can go through what these people have been through, but we can at least look at it and try to understand."

Matthew Zajac's character Bruce is based on Black Isle man Bruce Norval.
Matthew Zajac's character Bruce is based on Black Isle man Bruce Norval.

• Dogstar Theatre’s Factor 9, written by Hamish MacDonald and starring Stewart Porter and Matthew Zajac, begins its Scottish tour at Strathpeffer Pavilion on Tuesday 8th April.

The show can also be seen at Lyth Arts Centre near Wick on Wednesday 9th April; An Lanntair, Stornoway, on Friday 11th April; MacPhail Theatre, Ullapool, on Saturday 12th April; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on Tuesday 15th April; Carlops Village Hall on Thursday 17th April; and the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on Friday 18th and Saturday 19th April.

Saturday’s Eden Court show will also see Inverness mark World Haemophilia Day and there will be a reception at Inverness Town House prior to the play’s Eden Court performance.

The human cost of the contaminated blood scandal

Approximate number infected by blood products, Scotland — 523

Approximate number of deaths from infected blood products, Scotland — 240

Approximate number infected by blood products, UK — 4700

Approximate number of deaths from infected blood products, UK — 2000

Approximate number infected by blood products, world — 43,000

Approximate number of deaths from infected blood products, world — 18,000

Number of infections and deaths, partners and children — UNKNOWN

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