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Friday, 23 August 1985
Page: 294

Senator MASON —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health. It concerns the acquired immune deficiency syndrome and its transference through blood transfusions. Has the Minister noted that Professor David Penington remarked on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program the National on 8 August that it could be some weeks or months after a person has contracted AIDS before he developed anti-bodies. At a briefing yesterday Professor Penington added that it could be several months in some cases before those anti-bodies developed. Are not the tests based totally on the detection of anti-bodies in blood samples? in this case, will there not be a significant number of blood donations which are able to pass through the screening process and which could well result in people being infected with AIDS as a result of blood transfusions because of that time lapse? What is the Government doing about this or what does it propose to do?

Senator GRIMES —As Senator Mason says, the development of anti-bodies in AIDS or in any other viral disease in fact takes some weeks and sometimes months after a person is infected and there is a period when the person may be infected and the anti-bodies are not detectable. Senator Mason is correct that the screening tests at the moment involve the detection of anti-bodies in the blood, but the screening tests are not the only mechanism used in blood transfusions in Australia.

Australia has the reputation of having the best checks and the best screenings of blood transfusions in the world as far as AIDS is concerned. There are several reasons for this, not the least that we do not have in this country a system whereby people are in fact paid for their blood. We do not have the situation which exists in so many other countries where people actually give blood in order to gain money, sometimes in desperate circumstances. Secondly, all blood transfusion centres in Australia have been operating full testing procedures for AIDS for about 3 1/2 months and in addition to that the AIDS task force recommended and the governments and the National Red Cross Society took up the introduction of a uniform statement to be signed by all donors at the time of each donation declaring that they are not suffering from AIDS and are not members of groups known to be at significant risk from contracting AIDS. There is a penalty in all States and Territories for people who knowingly sign such forms and make declarations in a false way. Therefore there is a dual approach: The exclusion of high risk donors and the screening of donated blood.

As a result of these procedures, since screening was introduced almost a quarter of a million blood donations have been carefully tested and only seven donations have been rejected, indicating the effectiveness of the initial screening process. It is certainly true, as Senator Mason says, that a person does not develop the positive anti-bodies until some time later. Therefore it is theoretically possible that the odd infected blood will get through. It is believed that the safety of blood transfusions in this country is in excess of ten times the safety of that in the United States. The risk of getting contaminated blood is one in several millions. The risk is therefore very minimal and certainly far less a risk than those associated with forgoing a transfusion when it is needed. In the circumstances, because of the effectiveness of the operation that has been conducted in Australia and because of the co-operation between the States and the Federal Government and the medical authorities, I believe we have a system as safe as it can possibly be at the moment. Of course, we are not resting on that. As new developments occur, both the medical profession and the governments in this country will continue to improve that system.