REVEALING THE FACTS ON BLOOD

 

Few human faculties are as irritating as the 20/20 hindsight which opposition spokespersons demonstrated in the Dail yesterday in their pursuit of Michael Noonan over the most recently revealed inadequacies of the blood transfusion services in respect of a failure to trace the recipients of transfusions issued before 1985 which might have been contaminated with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The Minister for Health was understandably tetchy, given that the events which are quite properly the subject of, current concern occurred a very long time before he was handed what turned out to be the poisoned chalice containing the National Blood Transfusion Board's portfolio. While Mr Noonan has undoubtedly made some political mistakes in his handling of the hepatitis C affair, it was hard not to feel some sympathy for him as he tried to fend off criticisms of the much smaller, yet no less important, matter of possible HIV contamination of transfusions issued before HIV screening was applied to all donations to the blood bank. He pointed, understandably, to his several predecessors in the Department of Health since 1985.

Meanwhile, as Mr Justice Finlay's expeditious and revealing inquiry into the why and the how of the contamination of anti-D products with hepatitis C virus adjourned for its Christmas recess, there can be no doubt that there is need for the facts surrounding the failure to trace all recipients of the possibly HIV-contaminated transfusions to be similarly revealed. Mr Noonan's task is to restore public confidence in the safety of the State's blood supply on all fronts by ensuring that all past failures are fully revealed and by insisting that systems and structures are in place which will prevent recurrences and future disasters.

His commitment to a future inquiry into the HIV affair is to be welcomed, and his reluctance to interfere with, or to interrupt, the current hepatitis inquiry makes good sense. The fact that Mr Justice Finlay and his team will, when they conclude their present investigations, have acquired very considerable insights into the workings of the transfusion service, makes them logical candidates for the task of clearing up the matter of what went wrong in failing to trace the small number of potentially HIV-contaminated transfusions that were issued. It might well be that they would accept this smaller additional task when they have finished their current work. But the Minister can hardly commit them in advance, notwithstanding the logic of asking for their expert assistance.

It is somewhat less easy to understand the logic of, the proposal to set up a voluntary HIV-testing programme, to be administered through family doctors, for those persons who received blood transfusions between 1981 and 1985 and who fear that they might, have been infected by one of the 10 donations that might (or might not) have contained HIV. Certainly, there are some questions that can be asked about the efficacy and the cost of this enterprise in terms of just what, or how much, useful information it will reveal. Is it at all likely to identify the one or two people in the land who may have received a transfusion with HIV in it? Will the counselling processes normally deemed necessary for those undergoing HIV testing be provided, and by whom? How many people are now likely to volunteer for HIV testing under the terms proposed? The proposal needs a bit more thinking-through before it is implemented.