Noonan says blood bank head should have told him of HIV contamination fears


THE Minister for Health has told a Dail committee the chief executive of the Blood Transfusion Services Board (BTSB), Mr Liam Dunbar, should have told him it was aware last May that blood products may have been HIV contaminated.

Addressing the Select Committee on Social Affairs on the 1996 Supplementary Health Estimates yesterday, Mr Noonan said he would meet Mr Dunbar before he goes into the Dail on Tuesday to answer questions on the latest blood contamination controversy.

In spite of the fact that Mr Dunbar should have alerted him much earlier, the Minister said he was "not prepared to criticise him".

Meanwhile, he believed the numbers were "significantly smaller" than the maximum of 15 recipients believed by the BTSB to be at risk. However, it was "still a problem".

The Minister's explanation as to when he discovered the latest difficulties at the BTSB followed critical remarks from Opposition health spokeswomen. They claimed it was "extraordinary" and "unbelievable" that the BTSB should seek legal advice in relation to its duty of care between May and August last, yet the Minister had not been advised of the problem.

Mr Noonan said he was told on Friday last that a health care worker had tested HIV positive. However, he was not informed until Monday last, on his return from a conference abroad, that the person had been infected through a routine blood transfusion in this country.

He immediately met officials and discussed the matter for hours in an effort to procure as much information as possible before facing Dail questions on the issue on Tuesday.

He did not know why he was not informed by the BTSB of the HIV contamination earlier but he would be making "further inquiries" as to why he had not been told. "I feel I should have been informed," he said.

However, he had no knowledge of a case raised yesterday by Fianna Fail's health spokeswoman, Ms Maire Geoghegan Quinn. She told the committee she had been informed that a second health care worker in the south east had received a HIV contaminated blood transfusion and later died from AIDS in the 1980s.

According to Ms Geoghegan Quinn, the health care worker was a haemophiliac.

She said it was difficult to credit that the BTSB's new management did not seem to have taken on board the lessons of the hepatitis C scandal. If there was one thing she expected to result from the pain of the hepatitis C experience, it was that top management at the board would have improved communications with the Minister for Health.

Was there not on obligation on Mr Dunbar to inform the Department of what was happening in relation to the HIV contamination of blood? she asked.

Furthermore, questions also arose as to why the BTSB had not specifically mentioned in letters it sent to 45 hospitals that blood had been infected with HIV, Ms Geoghegan Quinn added. She understood the BTSB chief executive officer "wanted to avoid a scare" but if the facts could not be revealed to the hospitals, to whom could they be disclosed?

Echoing her incredulity, the Progressive Democrats' health spokeswoman, Ms Liz O'Donnell, said it seemed "remarkable" that the Minister was not in possession of information he certainly should have had. It was known that there were possibly 16 people who might have been infected since 1985 but "what was known for 11 years has not been acted upon".

The "frightening maladministration" which she said was evident in the BTSB put more fear into people that any letter to hospitals could do. It was incredible that the board actually wrote these letters to hospitals without telling the Minister.

However, commending Mr Dunbar for the "extraordinary" workload he had undertaken at the BTSB, Mr Noonan said that, if we were not "very careful", people would not take up public duties "because of the risks attached to it".