Troubles of the blood board keep multiplying

 

The IBTS is struggling to recover from scandals but more legal actions appear likely, writes Joe Humphreys

Will there be any end to the troubles at the Irish Blood Transfusion Service? After an expert group report on its activities and two tribunals of inquiry, several formal reviews of its operations and countless litigation cases, the agency is now embroiled in a new inquiry - into how blood donors who tested positive for hepatitis C in the early 1990s were not immediately informed of their test results.

The issue was addressed at the Finlay tribunal in 1997 where a blood donor from Munster, identified only as Donor L, criticised the blood bank for allowing two years to lapse before being informed of his positive test result.

Speaking from behind a screen, he said a "charade" was played out by allowing him to give blood on six occasions after he had tested positive for hepatitis C.

The tribunal heard Dr Joan Power, regional director of the IBTS in Cork, had chosen not to inform him of preliminary test results which indicated he had the virus. In evidence to the inquiry, Dr Power said she was aware the policy at the Dublin headquarters of the BTSB (as the IBTS was known) was to immediately inform donors who tested positive.

Her decision was made on the basis that repeated tests of the kind originally used did not prove Donor L was positive and more sophisticated tests were needed.

She said she faced a dilemma when donors initially tested positive as there was a risk of "false positives". Her research had indicated just one in "six or seven" of those who tested positive went on to be confirmed positive.

During the tribunal it emerged that other people had undergone a similar experience to Donor L. A witness for the campaign group Positive Action said there were two women in Cork who had not been told they had tested positive for hepatitis C for years after it was known to the BTSB.

One of the women had a child who was also positive, and it was felt that had the woman's infection been disclosed earlier the child could have been successfully treated for the virus.

Ruling on the matter, Mr Justice Thomas Finlay was unyielding in his criticism of the BTSB. He said the agency was "inadequate and incorrect in its treatment of Donor L and other persons who, on hepatitis C screening, proved positive on early testing by not informing them that their blood was not being used as donations and by not informing them of the results of the tests."

That such comments were made five years ago raises the question as to why a resolution to the issue is only being sought now.

The IBTS has identified 27 donors who received delayed test results like Donor L. Unlike Donor L, however, it appears none have since been informed of the fact of this delay in conveying results. The issue plainly has a litigation dimension, and some of the donors may choose to follow Donor L's example by suing the blood bank.

Whatever the outcome, the issue draws further negative attention to the IBTS, which many will feel should have conducted this inquiry on its own initiative several years ago.

Meanwhile, the financial cost of the blood scandals continues to rise. By last May, almost €300 million had been paid out under the hepatitis C compensation tribunal to those infected with the virus through blood and blood products.