A PUBLIC inquiry has heard harrowing accounts of how haemophiliacs were exposed to contaminated blood products in what has been described as the worst treatment disaster in NHS history.

Nearly 2,000 haemophilia patients who contracted the HIV and hepatitis C viruses from blood transfusions more than 20 years ago have since died and many others are believed to be terminally ill.

The scandal was first highlighted by The Northern Echo in its Fight For Justice campaign, launched in 1986.

Yesterday, for the first time, victims and their relatives gave evidence to a privately-funded independent public inquiry in London, chaired by former Solicitor General Lord Archer of Sandwell.

They included Carol Grayson, from Jesmond, Newcastle, whose husband 47-year-old Peter Longstaff died in 2005.

Mr Longstaff, originally from Hartlepool, was infected with HIV in the early 1980s through contaminated blood products, having contracted hepatitis C in the same way in the 1970s.

He had joined other North-East patients in attempting to sue the US companies that supplied the infected products, a lawsuit that is still continu- ing.

Mrs Grayson, who has campaigned for years for a public inquiry, said: "Peter was a great husband and father, a caring and brave man who I loved very much.

"I've one stepson, Craig, who suffered greatly watching his father deteriorate."

The former nurse said the medical profession had been negligent in its handling of those suffering from haemophilia, a hereditary disorder in which sufferers do not produce enough blood clotting agents, leading to spontaneous internal bleeding in the joints.

She said: "It failed properly to explain the dangers to patients and explain where the treatment was sourced so patients could be part of the joint decision-making process."

After the hearing Mrs Grayson, who has carried out an investigation into the blood products industry, produced a document which she said confirmed UK authorities knew about the dangers from US blood products as far back as the 1970s.

David Fielding, 51, from Bolton, said he was told he needed a liver transplant in 1998 after he contracted hepatitis C, having received contaminated blood in the late 1970s.

The father-of-three said: "I cannot say what I felt like when I was told I would be dead in six months without a transplant."

He added: "I hope somebody's got the guts to come here and say sorry."

The Echo campaign showed how the Government had failed to act quickly enough to prevent contaminated blood clotting agents from being supplied to haemophiliacs.

Millions of pounds in compensation were later paid to victims of the scandal, although critics say this is not enough.

Campaigners have also been angered by the Government's refusal to set up a publicly-funded inquiry.

Haemophilia Society chairman Roddy Morrison said: "We want to ensure that the suffering of all those affected is recognised and that the NHS learns all the lessons from this tragedy, so that such events can never happen again."

The hearing was adjourned until next month.