Hearings of hepatitis C tribunal to start today


HEARINGS of the tribunal of inquiry into the hepatitis C scandal will begin in Dublin today.

The tribunal, under the chairmanship of the former chief justice, Mr Thomas Finlay, sat for the first time on November 5th. It dealt with applications from interested parties for legal representation.

The tribunal of inquiry was announced by the Minister for Health, Mr Noonan, on October 15th, following the death of Mrs Brigid McCole. Mrs McCole, a mother of 12 from Donegal, died on October 2nd after being infected with the hepatitis C virus.

She was bringing the first test case to the High Court, seeking compensation for infection from contaminated blood products, but agreed a settlement with the Blood Transfusion Service Board just hours before she died.

Her death and its circumstances led to an outcry and provoked calls for an inquiry. The inquiry has authority to call on Mr Noonan, as well as his predecessors and Department of Health officials, to give evidence.

Its terms of reference cover the period from 1970 to the present, and allow for an investigation into the political, administrative and medical circumstances surrounding the contamination of blood and blood products. Following 20 days of oral hearings, Mr Finlay must produce an interim report to the Minister.

The tribunal of inquiry will investigate:

The circumstances under which anti D, which is used in the treatment of pregnant women and manufactured by the Blood Transfusion Service Board (BTSB), became infected with hepatitis C.

. How and when the BTSB first became aware the anti D it manufactured was infected with hepatitis C.

. What the BTSB did on this discovery and the adequacy of that response.

. The BTSB's response to a letter from the Middlesex Hospital in London on December 16th, 1991, which showed a link between hepatitis C and the BTSB's anti D product.

. Whether the National Drugs Advisory Body (NDAB) carried out its functions properly.

. Whether supervision of the BTSB and the NDAB, by the Department of Health and the health boards, was adequate in the context.

. Whether anti D was a therapeutic substance under the terms of the relevant 1932 Act, and whether granting a manufacturer's licence during the period 1970 to 1984 was appropriate.

. The relevance of any evidence not available to the Expert Group, which investigated the scandal and reported in January 1995.

. It is also asked to investigate questions raised by Mrs McCole's family, including one which relates to an alleged BTSB threat that she would be liable for costs if she did not settle.

Included with the terms of reference was a stipulation that it should be conveyed to the chairman that the inquiry "be completed in as economical a manner as possible and at the earliest date consistent with a fair examination of the matters referred to".

Two further terms of reference were added following a Dail debate on October 17th. These were:

. "It is the wish of Dail Eireann that all Department and State agency employees should give their full co operation to the tribunal and its inquiries and that all requested documents and information be provided."

. It was the Dail's desire that the anonymity of victims who appear before the tribunal be preserved "if they so wish, in so far as that may be possible."