6 February 1997 Edition

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Ireland's greatest medical disaster

Aine Keane looks at the Hepatitis C scandal which has afflicted over 1000 Irish people

Giving evidence at the Hepatitis C Tribunal on Thursday 23 January 1997, Donal Devitt, assistant secetary at the Department of Health, said that when he was first informed of the infection of several Irish women by contaminated blood products, instinct told him ``that this was going to be the biggest medical disaster in the history of the state''.

Following one noted death and several unrecorded fatalities resulting from this little understood liver disease, his instinct seems to have been prophetically accurate.

It was at a meeting in January 1994 attended by Minister Brendan Howlin that Devitt initially expressed his view that a statutory tribunal should be established to deal with the crisis, and that tribunal remains in progress.

The most harrowing evidence was given to the tribunal by the family of Brigid McCole who died last year. She was one of the 980 Irish women who contracted the disease as a result of anti-D infection in 1977. (Anti D is a blood product administered by the Blood Transfusion Board to women with blood groups incompatible with their new born babies. This was contaminated with the Hepatitis C virus in the late 1970s.)

The McCole family gave an account of their mother's final years, describing how they felt paralysed to respond to her painful screams at night as she ``slowly went through hell''.

It was to aid women like Brigid McCole that the self help group Positive Action was set up. Women infected by the disease searched for a sense of communial affinity and support and Positive Action efficently provided this. Its first formal meeting in Dublin was attended by 300 people and the organisation now has over 700 members.

Positive Action have constantly stressed the need for answers, information and coherence. Their chairperson Jane O'Brien criticised the current Minister for Health Michael Noonan and his predecessor, Brendan Howlin, for their shameful handling of the crisis. This criticism has centred on Noonan's attempts to avoid holding a judicial inquiry into the hepatitis C scandal. O'Brien has also been highly critical of what she terms the ``cold-hearted, grossly insensitive treatment of infected women by the BTSB'' which has led to resentment and antagonism on the part of infected women towards both the Government and Pelican House (the BTSB's headquarters).

When the Blood Bank first discovered that the hepatitis C virus had somehow contaminated Anti D supplies, initial tests were ambiguous. Eventually after 14 months of confusion and inefficiency it emerged that over 1000 women had been infected by supposedly safe blood products. For some, this delay was fatal. On the subsequent withdrawal of anti D products, Donal Devitt stated, ``in retrospect we should have instructed the BTSB to physically go out and collect them from the beginning [as reports of the use of suspect anti D stock arose]''.

The Government and opposition continue to play politics with the issue. The BTSB proved to be equally inefficient in dealing with their self-created crisis. Moreover the state response of cover-up and ambiguity has been largely mirrored by the investigative tribunal which presently seems set to become the second ``beef tribunal'', costing taxpayers millions and remaning largely inconclusive. It was for this reason that the Haemophialic Society of Ireland, representing 200 infected victims, walked out of the tribunal stating that their ``needs were not being addressed''. At present 1,500 Irish citizens have been infected by hepatitis C due to the alleged culpable negligence of a state agency - the blood transfusion board.

Evidence has been given that in 1977 the BTSB continued to manufacture and distribute a blood product extracted from a woman diagnosed as having ``infective hepatitis'', and infections continued some two to three years after the BTSB received a warning about infected blood products in 1991. Last Tuesday on the twenty seventh day of the inquiry the Irish Blood Transfusion Board finally apologised for their ``negligence, repeated wrong decisions and breach of protocol''. Although this apology was accepted, Paul Gallagher SC has called for such words to be met with actions and stated that the real lesson to be learned from the tribunal was hopefully the prevention of such negligence in the future.

The final report from the tribunal is expected to be available by the end of the month.

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