‘I have passed anger and bitterness’: Women infected in anti-D scandal 30 years ago recall its impact

Of 1,200 women known to have been affected by the anti-D scandal, roughly 500 survivors are alive today

Catherine Slavin was out of the house when Dr Joan Power called her landline on February 21st, 1994.

Unable to reach Slavin, Power, a consultant haematologist with the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board (BTSB), left a message with her husband: she would be on RTÉ's Six One news later that evening with important information.

Earlier, in November 1993, after a series of blood tests, Power had informed Slavin that she had been infected with hepatitis C. Slavin only found out how she had contracted the virus when she sat down to watch the news that evening, 30 years ago this week.

Power had uncovered a link between several female blood donors with hepatitis C, including Slavin, and contaminated anti-D immunoglobulin, a blood product given to women with rhesus-negative blood type to protect foetuses during future pregnancies. The doctor, who later apologised to Slavin for not reaching her before the TV broadcast, was instrumental in exposing the blood scandal.


Following the birth of her first child at Limerick’s maternity hospital in 1977, Slavin was injected with a dose of anti-D contaminated with hepatitis C, produced by the BTSB. She was one of roughly 1,200 women known to have received a contaminated dose of the blood product between the late 1970s and the early 1990s.

“We were devastated. It was nearly 16 or 17 years later,” says Slavin (76) on Thursday. “I had hep C since 1977 and I didn’t know anything about it.”

For years, she had struggled with fatigue, a common symptom of hepatitis C. Initially, she put it down to a busy lifestyle —running a pub with her husband and raising three children. “I often had to go to bed during the day ... because I was so tired.”

In the 1990s, hepatitis C — a potentially deadly disease that can cause liver failure — carried a stigma, felt acutely by those who were affected by contaminated batches of anti-D.

Slavin, who also was a locum nurse, was effectively fired from her job at a regional hospital after learning she had the virus.

“I was just asked not to come to work for a while,” she says. “I think they just didn’t want it known that there was a hep C nurse working in a hospital. They didn’t give me a reason.”

It was only after her union and other medical colleagues stepped in that she was reinstated at the hospital some months later.

“When I did go back, I asked for an apology, and I didn’t get any,” she adds.

Helen Martin (67), anti-D survivor and chairwoman of the advocacy group Anti-D Women, says the scandal had a huge impact on women and their families. “People lost their jobs over it. They were sworn to silence, not tell anybody within their workplace.”

After the scandal broke in February 1994, the Government moved to put mechanisms in place for survivors to receive compensation.

Brigid McCole, a mother of 12 from Glenties, Co Donegal, who was infected with hepatitis C in the late 1970s, refused a proposed settlement of £175,000 from BTSB in September 1995. She instead sought to bring the board to the High Court, to find out the truth behind the anti-D scandal.

However, McCole’s health deteriorated significantly in the months that followed, and she never had her day in court.

On October 1st, McCole agreed to settle her case out of court. She died from liver failure the next day — the first known victim of the anti-D scandal.

In 1997, the Finlay Tribunal identified several BTSB staff that had failed in preventing the use of anti-D made with the blood of a female patient who was known to have jaundice.

Of the 1,200 women known to have been affected by the anti-D scandal, roughly 500 survivors are alive today.

After three separate courses of treatment, Slavin was cured of hepatitis C in 2010.

The anger she felt in the wake of the scandal has mainly subsided now. You just have to get on with life, she says.

Yet, looking back, she realises the toll the entire affair had on her — “psychologically as well as physically”, she says. “You have liver damage. But the doctors in Cork did look after us.”

Martin, from Co Kerry, feels similarly: “I have passed anger and bitterness.”

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Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher

Fiachra Gallagher is an Irish Times journalist