Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal

Every public relations organization has a code of ethics that their employees must adhere to. However, it is naive to think that this principle prevents unethical communication to reach the public. It is very troubling to consider that ethical codes are constantly violated in this industry.

One must look no further than Health Management Associates’ Arkansas prison blood scandal. HMA’s program was designed in 1960s as a way for both the prison system and the prisoners to make money. The idea was to harvest plasma from prisoners to provide blood to blood-brokering companies, as well as a pharmaceutical product to haemophiliacs that would allow their blood to clot. Users of the product paid $50 per prescription refill.

This program was rife with problems, and they stemmed from the fact that HMA’s protocol was to utilize prisoners as employees in the program, who worked as administrative staff and phlebotomists. Because they were paid, corruption enveloped the program through the prisoners who worked within it.  They sold the right to bleed, they paid those who bled in drugs, and diseased prisoners were allowed to bleed because the adequate screening processes were neglected, and even doctored by the prisoner-employees themselves.

Between 1964 and 1983, products that were contaminated with AIDS, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C were shipped to Canada, Japan, South Korea, and many European nations. In 1983, the first international recall of the product’s history occurred, and the issue went public, which, in turn, caused a public relations nightmare. Most of the companies who bought the raw product from HMA had no idea that it was coming from infested prisoners in Arkansas.

HMA was implicated in unethical international communication on their part, because they had openly covered up the contamination issues for years. The plasma was exported outside the U.S. until 1983, but its sale within U.S. borders had been banned for years prior to the international recall. HMA openly lied about the contamination, and funded misinformation campaigns to promote their own shoddy merchandise, which resulted in global AIDS and Hepatitis infections in the hundreds of thousands. 

For example, in 1983, HMA president Leonard Dunn successfully lobbied for the company to retain its contract until 1986, despite the fact that he knew that nearly 40 per cent of their product was contaminated in 1983 with AIDS and Hepatitis C. He only cared about profit, and not the public.

After examining a case like this, it’s hard to avoid cynicism. Questions like, “Do ethics even matter?” run rampant. How many other companies treat communication this way? It always helps to look at messages in terms of profit. Also, how do they stimulate financial growth? What are the problems with the products they promote?

For all ethical practitioners, this is something to consider, because, in some instances, innocent lives are at stake.

— Jamal Nath

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