In 1999, Matthew Kleiner, a childhood friend, suggested that I make a film about how he and 70% of the hemophiliacs in the U.S. had been infected with HIV, and 100% with hepatitis, from the FDA-approved medication on which they were dependent.
As I spoke with Matt I came to understand what he had long understood. This was not just the story of the greatest medical disaster in U.S. history – one that would cost 10,000 lives – but a cautionary tale that has continued to play out in news stories about Vioxx and more recently, Avandia, drugs whose dangers come to light long after they’ve been marketed to consumers.
And so began a ten-year journey to craft a film that sought to alert people to the ongoing issues this crisis raised: Was the FDA too closely aligned to the pharmaceutical industry to effectively regulate medicines? Was the argument that pharmaceutical companies needed to be profitable in order to research and develop new treatments sufficient to justify the ways in which they made (and continue to make) cost-cutting decisions affecting patient safety – particularly when patients have no alternative treatment?
Matt’s story also offers a new and important lens through which to view the HIV/AIDS crisis. Entirely dependent on medicine derived from donated human blood, hemophiliacs are the canaries in our public health system: their safety is our safety. Failure to adequately patrol the collection and processing of blood had dire consequences in the 1980s and 1990s. The blood supply is today free of both HIV and hepatitis, but how prepared are we to identify and stop the next source of infection?
In the course of making the film I built relationships within the hemophilia community, gaining access to new investigative findings, rarely seen footage and photographs, and eventually, secured the participation of government regulators and pharmaceutical companies. Some of them are speaking publicly for the first time because they, too, see BAD BLOOD as the seminal documentary covering this crisis.
The film builds on my experience in both social issue and historical documentary film. I made a conscious choice to use the historical record including news footage, actual memos, and personal photographs – not recreations – so the facts speak for themselves and reminds audiences that tragedy of this magnitude can unknowingly unfold right before our eyes. Emerging from tragedy, I hope, is a story of caution and inspiration, as victims of medical disaster fight to change the systems that failed them.