MORE PROBLEMS WITH BLOOD

 

There was a time when all the citizens in this State could, and did, place total confidence in the reliability of the blood and blood products emanating from Pelican House. The donors were all volunteers (as indeed they still are) and no hidden problems existed in the blood provided for transfusion. The product was cleaner and safer than blood drawn from donors in many other countries where payments were made for donations, where blood was a matter of financial profit either to donor or blood bank, and where testing was sometimes less rigorous than here. The Blood Transfusion Service Board and its staff had every reason to be pleased. The donors were proud of themselves. And doctors and patients across the land relied virtually without question on products that were wholly beneficial.

But times became more complicated. There were challenges generally promptly and expertly met to create more refined or more complex substances from some of the donated blood, and very shortly thereafter two hitherto unknown viruses emerged which, it was subsequently learned, were transmitted in blood and certain other body fluids. Some time after that, it now appears, the sort of systems through which the Blood Transfusion Service Board had successfully protected the quality of its products began to break down or fray at the edges or even (as the current Hepatitis C Tribunal has heard) appeared to be ignored.

The hepatitis C tragedy has proved vast, and the tribunal investigating the possible causes of that tragedy has already revealed a great deal of information on how it may have happened that products designed originally to treat women whose blood groups were harmfully different from those of the foetuses they might carry in their wombs, became contaminated by a potentially lethal virus. More recently there has come news of batches of blood contaminated with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus - before routine screening for HIV was introduced in 1985 being dispatched for use by unsuspecting recipients. The problem is nowhere near as vast as the hepatitis C catastrophe, but it is no less alarming for those who may have been affected by the contaminated blood.

Almost as many questions are raised by this HIV contamination problem as were raised by the transmission of hepatitis C in blood products. Among them will be why it took so long to instigate a search for the recipients of the blood, and why (when the search finally started in September) the records of dispatch and receipt of the blood were not available. Ten years is a relatively short period over which to ensure that records are carefully preserved relating to blood which may carry contaminants which can take many years to make their presence felt in people who received the product unknowingly.

If faith in the quality of the blood supply is to be restored (as indeed it must be), then it is essential that the answers to these and many more questions must be publicly revealed so that, at least, procedures and structures will be put in place to prevent recurrence. The first task is to try belatedly to identify the small number of recipients of the HIV contaminated blood. The second task is one of revelation of why things went wrong in this instance. The Minister for Health could do worse than refer this second issue to the Hepatitis C Tribunal for consideration and recommendation.