Many thousands may avail of `optional' HIV test programme


THE Blood Transfusion Service Board and the Department, of Health are discussing how to implement an "optional" HIV testing programme for the tens of thousands who received blood products between the start of 1981 and October 1985.

A board spokesman could not estimate last night how many people would be liable to seek testing from next month, but medical sources said the figure could run to many thousands.

Announcing the programme in the Dail yesterday, the Minister for Health, Mr Noonan, said that, in spite of intensified efforts, 10 blood "issues" contaminated by the HIV virus remained untraced.

Since there could be no guarantee that they would be uncovered, he had decided a voluntary testing system should be implemented for the blood and blood-product recipients of the relevant period.

"I have instructed my Department to put in place the necessary arrangements with the BTSB and other health agencies so that the optional testing programme can commence in January 1997, aimed at the cohort of people who were recipients of blood or blood products during this period," Mr Noonan said.

An unknown percentage of the relevant recipients have since died and others who donated blood after 1985 would have been automatically screened. While these factors eliminate a large proportion, many others may decide to avail of the programme.

Replying to Dail questions on the controversy Mr Noonan also confirmed that the hepatitis C tribunal may be asked to investigate the circumstances surrounding the contamination of blood products with the HIV virus.

An interim report on the hepatitis C tribunal - which adjourned yesterday for the Christmas break - is to be delivered to the Minister during the recess. Terms of reference addressing specific questions in relation to the HIV contamination are expected to be put to the Dail at the end of January.

"The success of the current tribunal is widely ascribed, amongst other things, to the specificity of the terms of reference and, if there is to be an extension of this inquiry, or an associated inquiry in relation to HIV, then that example should be followed," the Minister said.

Meanwhile, Mr Noonan circulated a copy of a letter from the board to the State's hospitals last September asking them to trace blood issues which might have been contaminated by the virus but which failed to mention HIV.

He did not, however, publish letter that the board sent to his Department in 1993 but which he saw only on December 13th. This letter, the Minister said, gave the "all-clear" after a check by the board had been conducted on blood given by a HIV-infected donor.

In the course of his supplementary replies, Mr Noonan indicated that this letter had been shown to senior officials in the Department of Health, and the then minister, Mr Brendan Howlin, was informed of the situation.

The blood donor tested positive in 1993. He had given two previous donations, in 1989 and in 1990. However, a check of the 1990 donation proved negative and, when the recipient was traced and screened, she also proved negative. It was then deemed unnecessary to undertake a "lookback" on the 1989 donation.

A spokesman for Mr Howlin said the Department had got the all-clear immediately and there was never a question of a contamination of the blood supply.

Dismissing the importance of this letter, Mr Noonan said it would be more important for the Opposition to concentrate on the fact that no lookback programme was in place between 1985 and 1989.

Defending the level of communication between the board and his Department, Mr Noonan said that while he should have been told about the HIV problem in early summer rather than in the first week in December", he was happy with reporting procedures.