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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 18042

Senator HUTCHINS (12:59 PM) —I rise today to discuss the issue of hepatitis C and the thousands of Australians who have contracted hepatitis C through blood transfusions. Hepatitis C is an illness which can be life threatening and which can steal people's ability to live fulfilling and fruitful lives. In light of its serious effects and the justifiable expectation that the blood supply is free from contamination, those individuals who have contracted hepatitis C as a result of medical treatment are in an exceptionally unfortunate situation. Their own lives and their families' lives have been damaged by the inability of the relevant authorities to ensure that blood donors do not have serious illnesses which are transmissible.

The British government has recently announced that it will provide up to 45,000 in compensation to victims of tainted blood. It is a brave step by the Labour government to compensate those who have been infected, but it is a step which reflects a compassionate approach to the problems faced by those people who have contracted a very serious illness.

It is entirely reasonable that citizens of this country, too, would expect to be compensated for the failure of the Australian Red Cross and the regulatory framework for donated blood. To this date, however, there have been relatively few settlements, and those settlements which have been made are contingent upon confidentiality agreements which prevent victims from telling their stories. When entering a hospital for treatment, Australians expect the best health care—and they deserve it. There will always be errors and mistakes, but the evidence I have seen seems to indicate that there has been a systematic failure to screen blood properly.

I have asked a series of questions on notice throughout this year, and the answers I have received—many of them belatedly—indicate that there have been times when the Australian blood supply has not been as reliable as one would hope. It has been confirmed that, as at April this year, the Australian Red Cross had notified 2,456 people of their potential exposure to hepatitis C as a result of a blood transfusion. Support groups for recipients of hepatitis C infected blood suggest that the number of people exposed is considerably higher—perhaps in the tens of thousands or more.

Since 1995, years after screening for hepatitis C was introduced, 13 incidents of hepatitis C infection as a result of blood transfusion have been detected. Those 13 incidents resulted from the blood of seven donors. One Queensland woman unknowingly infected with hepatitis C donated blood twice in 1995.

Australia is a nation which prides itself on its scientific capabilities. It is a disgrace that our blood supply of the last decade has not been pure. The government is responsible not only for failing to implement effective measures to prevent this from happening but also for being part of the cover-up. The former Minister for Health and Ageing, Senator Patterson, stated in answers to questions I placed on notice on 26 March that the Commonwealth `indirectly makes a joint financial contribution' to the settlements made between the Australian Red Cross and the victims of hepatitis C through blood transfusion. The minister also said:

The Commonwealth has provided $5.47m (including legal and administrative costs) in funding as its contribution to settlements.

I believe that the government's provision of funds for compensation is entirely fair and appropriate, but the manner in which the government has gone about it is wrong on two fronts. Firstly, the payments which some victims of tainted blood have received have been linked to confidentiality agreements. As a result, those people are not allowed to tell their stories or raise awareness among people who received blood transfusions at a similar time or place. In my opinion the confidentiality agreements are means to maintain unjustifiable faith in the blood supply as it was in the early 1990s. The government, by at least partly funding the settlements, is complicit in this cover-up.

Secondly, Senator Patterson, in answering questions I placed on notice, would not provide any details of the settlements. She would not say how many settlements have been made in total or in each year from 1997-98 to 2002-03. Details of these settlements have failed to be provided. The Department of Health and Ageing and the Howard government have contributed to the cover-up, because they are stopping the free flow of information on a very important issue. The purity of the blood supply has the potential to affect tens of thousands of Australians each year, yet the government has funded settlements which result in preventing awareness of the risks Australians face when receiving blood.

The potential causes of hepatitis C infected blood are manifold. Through my questions on notice to the then minister for health, the sources of blood and blood products have become clearer. Senator Patterson stated:

For plasma derived products, Australia has not been fully self-sufficient in the past ...

I have been provided with a list of blood products which have been imported mainly from North America and Western Europe. Senator Patterson also said:

Prior to 1 July 2003, the ARCBS managed arrangements relating to the importation of fresh blood products ...

It is entirely inappropriate that the government does not keep records of the types, amounts or sources of blood which is to be used in the treatment of Australian patients. It appears that a lack of records is entirely normal when it comes to the government's handling of blood. Again, responses to my questions on notice have shown that the government cannot ascertain how many women have been exposed to hepatitis C infected blood during childbirth. In fact, no studies of that kind have been carried out.

I would suggest that the safety of children when first coming into this world should be one of the highest priorities of any government. If there is even a slight possibility that children have been infected with hepatitis C during birth, the Department of Health and Ageing should initiate research into the likelihood, effects and consequences of infection. This is a serious issue. I have spoken to men and women who have contracted hepatitis C as a result of blood transfusions, and they have told me of the effect it has had on their lives. It has damaged their ability to live as they did before their illness. It has prevented many of them from working, and some of them may die as a result of their infection with hepatitis C.

I have spoken previously in this place about the late introduction of surrogate testing for hepatitis C in Australia. The Australian Red Cross introduced surrogate testing in 1990, well after the test became available in 1986. It is concerning enough that a simple and relatively inexpensive test was not implemented as soon as it was available. We will probably never know how many people were infected with hepatitis C as a result of that four-year delay in introducing surrogate testing. But more than that: it is becoming clear that, even after the introduction of surrogate testing, men and women around Australia were exposed to a life-threatening illness while they were provided with blood as a result of another medical problem.

We know that there have been at least 13 infections since 1995—five years after the test was introduced. We know that the government has provided funding for the payment of settlements to the victims of some of these infections, yet the victims themselves cannot tell us the circumstances of their infection because of the confidentiality agreements required of them. We know that the government has spent over $5 million funding those settlements, but we do not know how much has been spent in each year, nor do we know how much individuals have received, on average, to compensate them for their misfortune.

We know that the British government has had the courage and compassion to provide compensation to all victims of hepatitis C infection through blood transfusion. We also know that the Canadian, Scottish and Irish governments either have or are committed to providing compensation to the victims in their respective countries. We know that women have been infected with hepatitis C during childbirth, but we do not know how many, nor do we know whether their children have been infected. We know that the Australian blood supply is not entirely derived from within Australia, that blood products and fresh blood have been imported to meet demand in the Australian health care system. It is about time we knew the full story.

I am pleased to have secured the support of the Senate for the Senate Community Affairs References Committee to inquire into these matters. It will be an opportunity for all of those Australians who have been infected with hepatitis C through standard medical procedures to discover how it was allowed to happen to them. Submissions from individuals around the country have already been received. It is only fair that they be allowed to tell their side of the story and that they be given the opportunity to hear the responses from groups like the Australian Red Cross and CSL Ltd. I will endeavour to ask those questions needed to get to the bottom of this issue. It is only right and fair that people who have contracted hepatitis C through blood transfusions have their questions answered. We have been kept in the dark for a long time; I hope this inquiry can shed light on the reasons why people were exposed to such a serious illness and can find a way to ensure that it does not happen again.