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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7384

Senator HARRADINE (2:30 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Health and Ageing. Is the minister aware that the Canadian Red Cross and its officials have been charged with endangering the public for failing to introduce surrogate testing for hepatitis C? Is the minister aware that the Australian Red Cross blood service also failed to implement procedures to protect Australian recipients of blood transfusions or blood products in the late 1980s, despite the fact that the US Food and Drug Administration had recommended this testing to safeguard against hepatitis C? Instead of the very limited inquiry we have now, will the minister order a judicial inquiry into Australia's failure to adequately protect the public from hepatitis C tainted blood in the late 1980s resulting in an estimated 8,000 additional Australians acquiring this chronic virus with its drastic effect on families?

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Harradine, your question was rather long.

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I am aware of the recent Krever report about the transmission of hepatitis C and human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, in Canada. According to media reports, it was the basis for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police laying criminal charges. I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment on legal proceedings currently under way in another country. It should be emphasised that the report involves events that occurred in the 1980s in Canada's health system, not in Australia. I would also like to reassure Australians that we have one of the safest blood systems in the world. In 1990 we were one of the first countries in the world to introduce a first-generation mass screening test for hepatitis C, shortly after the new antibody test became available. During the mid to late 1980s the test available for hepatitis C was the surrogate test and it was only able to detect liver dysfunction. This test was not specific for hepatitis C, it was not a wholly conclusive test and not all countries adopted it.

There was an element of criticism in what Senator Harradine said about the inquiry, but I have asked Professor Barraclough to look into the claims that plasma testing positive to the hepatitis C antibody was used in the manufacture of plasma products in 1990 and his report is due at the end of the year. Two expert hepatologists, Professor Peter Angus and Geoff Farrell are supporting Professor Barraclough in his work. As part of the process, Professor Barraclough is consulting with all appropriate parties, including the Australian Red Cross blood service and CSL Ltd, as well as state and territory health departments. I think it is important for the community to understand that the claims that Professor Barraclough is looking at relate to a period in 1990, not today. Senator Harradine will disagree with me on this but I believe that it is appropriate to have a person of Professor Barraclough's standing to undertake this investigation of something which occurred over 10 years ago.

Senator HARRADINE —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am not querying the efficacy of the blood supply now— let us get that clear—but, after the state of Queensland implemented surrogate testing for hepatitis C in 1988, why did the other states not follow suit? Should that be part of Professor Barraclough's inquiry? When blood donors who were found to be carriers of hepatitis C were asked to keep donating blood plasma in 1990 were any checks conducted to determine whether they had donated blood in the past? How many previous recipients of their blood have been contacted and informed of the risk to their health or to those around them? An examination of the adequacy or otherwise of medical and counselling services and financial redress for victims such as mothers with families should be conducted. Why won't the minister ensure that Professor Barraclough, whom I respect, should not undertake that inquiry—(Time expired)

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) —I am sure that Professor Barraclough will be looking at the issues that Senator Harradine raised. I do not believe that some of them are appropriate for Professor Barraclough to be looking at, but I will draw his attention to Senator Harradine's question because there are some issues in the first part of his supplementary question which I believe Professor Barraclough may already be looking at. I know that Senator Harradine does not agree that Professor Barraclough should be undertaking this review. It is something that happened 10 years ago. It is something that happened when there were significant changes occurring in our understanding of technology and our understanding of blood and blood safety. I am sure that Professor Barraclough, assisted by two other experts in the field whom I have already named, will present me with a report before the end of the year, and I will assess it when I receive it.