Family of Derry man infected with Hepatitis C hopeful truth will be exposed

Seamus Conway (centre) pictured shortly before he passed away with his nephew Luke McLaughlin and Jimmy White.
Seamus Conway (centre) pictured shortly before he passed away with his nephew Luke McLaughlin and Jimmy White.

The family of a Derry man who was infected with Hepatitis C through contaminated blood treatment, have said they are hopeful the full truth of what happened will be exposed through a new Inquiry.

Gifted and popular local snooker player, Seamus (Shea) Conway, passed away on May 28, 2018 aged 45, after previously undiagnosed cancer spread to his liver. His death was found to be linked to the virus he was infected with as a boy while receiving blood clotting treatment for Haemophilia.

The late Seamus (Shea) Conway.

The late Seamus (Shea) Conway.

Mr. Conway was among around 5,000 people in Britain and Northern Ireland born with Haemophilia and known to have been infected with potentially deadly viruses such as Hepatitis C and HIV when they were treated with contaminated blood imported in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the blood used was gathered from prisoners in US jails.

Around half of the known victims affected by the scandal are now dead.

Former High Court judge, Sir Brian Langstaff, is chairing a new inquiry and said last week there could be many more victims as yet undiagnosed.

The Inquiry will investigate how the victims came to be infected with such deadly viruses. Allegations of a major cover up, the destruction of official documents and missing medical records are also expected to be examined.

Michael Birtles

Michael Birtles

Weeks prior to Seamus’ death, his cousin, Michael Birtles, who also contracted Hepatitis C as a result of the contaminated blood clotting treatment, died 10 days before his 60th birthday on March 9 this year.

Speaking on behalf of the family, Seamus’ siblings Christina and John said that while nothing would ever lessen the devastating impact of losing their brother, they wanted to see justice being done for all the victims and families who have had to endure not only the trauma and devastation of what happened, but also the alleged lack of aftercare such as health checks and information about the conditions.

The Conway family said that evidence uncovered suggests that many people continued to be given the untreated blood transfusions despite the potentially catastrophic impact being known by some authorities at the time.

Mr. Conway’s family, who have now applied for his medical records to be released to them, said they were determined to help secure answers regarding what happened at the time and over the neglect, they said, their family and others had suffered since the scale of the catastrophe was exposed.

Christina, who attended the hearings at the Inquiry last week and who intends to give evidence, said: “Seamus was born a Haemophiliac. It runs in the family and there wouldn’t have been that much treatment at that time. He would have been around 11 when he got his first rounds of Factor VIII.

“What we didn’t know then, was the Factor VIII was contaminated with all sorts of viruses because they were buying it from prisons in America. They were buying it for seven dollars a pint. The needle was never changed when that blood was being collected.

“It was around about 1983 when the Americans realised this was not working for them because it had started coming out about AIDs and HIV and they realised there were viruses in it.”

However, she said the contaminated blood was still sold to Canadian authorities who were unaware of the risks and by the time they realised, it had been sold all over the world.

“That, for the most part, was all accidental. However, when it got here they decided to do a study of clean men, who were not exposed to Factor VIII. They got mild Haemophiliacs who would have never needed Factor VIII and contaminated them to see how the viruses worked in the body,” she claimed.

“In Seamus’ case, we were all led to believe: don’t worry about this virus, it’s the best you can get, it’ll not cause you any problems.

“Haemophilia itself is a debilitating, nasty condition. Seamus got on with his life.”

Mr. Conway’s family said he was a much loved and treasured person, the baby of the family and well known for being a real character. He also adored his daughter, Jennifer and she, in turn, doted on him.

Despite the setbacks he suffered in life, he was renowned as an excellent snooker player and may have had a world-class career but for his Haemophilia. His ability to clear a snooker table had earned him the nickname of ‘The Wizard’ and 10 days before he died he met with his idol, Jimmy White.

“He had groups of friends in Derry, who were like family to him. We were his family but they were there for him as well,” his sister maintained.

“The nature of Haemophilia is that it restricts you in your life. As a young child I saw the pain he was in; he would be in horrendous agony. My parents were dedicated to him, we were all dedicated to him.”

Many of those affected by the viruses were not told until around a decade later that they had been contaminated; some of the recipients having, by that stage, married and had children and having in various cases unwittingly passed on the viruses to their loved ones.

“It completely destroyed people’s lives,” Christina said, adding that many victims were forced to suffer in silence and even in shame.

The family said that 10years ago Shay underwent a scan for his liver and was sent home, presumably because no problems were found. He was never called again for another scan.

“Last November we could see he wasn’t well. He wasn’t always well, so never in a million years did we think it was his liver. We just thought it was to do with Haemophilia, low bloods or just that he was not himself. He went himself to the GP and she was brilliant and immediately sent him to Belfast. He was told the following week he had three to six months to live, that cancer had gone into the stem of the liver. He had been told his life was about to end.”

She claimed that Shay was also given the wrong impression that his lifestyle would have caused this.

“Seamus took a drink but he wasn’t an alcoholic and the virus affects your liver the same way.

“He had been living with that for God knows how long. They had missed any opportunity of saving his life. He had an horrendous death and we, his family, have been left to deal with that. There had been huge neglect the last 10 years of his life,” she claimed.

Just weeks before Shay passed away, his cousin Michael Birtles, who also contracted Hepatitis C as a result of the blood clotting treatment, died 10 days before his 60th birthday on March 9 this year.

The family said Michael was found dead two days on from being discharged from hospital after initially being rushed there earlier by ambulance. The day after his death, they said, a letter arrived stating that his case has been reviewed and asking him to return to hospital.

Christina, who along with several other members of her family also has Haemophilia, said attending the Inquiry was “powerful and harrowing” at the same time.

She said that as she related her own family’s experiences, others shared similar stories. “It’s horrifying; you are devastated and you know it is not just your family affected by it, and there is a wee bit of relief in that as well.

“The whole world has had their justice and Britain is the only place, as far as we know, were that hasn’t happened.

“I would like people to realise that they should ask questions; challenge everything; don’t think because somebody is standing in a white coat that they are telling you the truth.

“We would have been happy if any of the clinics had said to us this is a nasty, sneaky condition this virus, keep an eye on him. We saw his colour changing over the last couple of years. I’ve had his friends message me saying he’s not well and to probe him, which I did. In the end he said to me, if I had known, I’d have been getting that checked. But the opportunity was never given.”