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Thursday, 14 November 1974
Page: 2384

Senator BAUME (New South Wales) -Mr Chairman,I seek leave to make a short statement.

The CHAIRMAN (Senator Webster -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.

Senator BAUME - I must say that I am very grateful to the Minister for Repatriation and Compensation (Senator Wheeldon) for the prompt way in which an answer has been sought and given in relation to matters which I raised 2 days ago. The Minister makes several points which I think should be answered briefly at this stage. Firstly, he states that one of the overseas studies concerning rauwolfia suggests an increased risk of the order of two to four times in the incidence of breast cancer. I submit that we are not in a situation where we are looking for scientific proof of the correctness or incorrectness of the suggested association. We have a situation where plenty of alternative agents are available. If a doubt has been raised about what, up to now, has been an excellent drug surely the correct thing to do is not to seek scientific, irrefutable proof but to take the appropriate action. We should not use the drug until we know what the situation is. The Australian Drug Evaluation Committee thought the position sufficiently serious to circularise all doctors.

I reiterate that it is appropriate in my mind that the drug should be voluntarily withdrawn. It is not a question of knowing with 100 per cent certainty that this association actually occurs. What we do know is that 3 groups, in a reputable way, have raised this doubt. I am concerned all the time that there could be another thalidomide disaster around the corner tomorrow, next week or at some time. The lesson which we got from the thalidomide disaster was not to do with that drug alone; it had to do with our methods of reacting to suspicion. If there is one thing that went wrong with thalidomide it was that we did not act sufficiently quickly when suspicion was first raised. I am not saying that rauwolfia does cause breast cancer. No one can say that. All I can say is that some reputable people have raised the possibility. If at this stage my wife was being treated with rauwolfia I would make damned sure that she was not being treated with the drug after today until I knew for certain. I appreciate the scientific view taken by the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee, but personally, I do not think that is the appropriate response in view of the evidence offered.

With regard to the Dalkon shield, I simply say that A. H. Robins Pty Ltd was kind enough to supply me yesterday with a considerable amount of data. The information suggests, as the Minister has told the Committee, that it is likely that the product will be released again for use on the American market. But the point I make once more is that the product was removed from the American market in June this year. Again I say that if suspicion arises the correct thing to do is to withdraw the product since we know that good alternatives are available. If that is a bit hard on the manufacturer, I am sorry, but it is probably not hard on the women of Australia who may unwittingly be using a product which might just possibly be dangerous. It appears that the Dalkon shield might be cleared of the suspicions which have been raised against it. I have here a letter sent to me by the managing director of A. H. Robins. He states that the Food and Drug Administration in America is in receipt of its subcommittee report which it expects will clear the product. But there has been some delay in releasing that report and allowing the product back on the market in the United States. I am not disturbed at all with the factual answers I have received. I think the facts speak for themselves. But I am concerned about the principle of action which has been established and about our proposed course of action in the future whenever doubts are raised about any therapeutic substances.

Senator WHEELDON(Western AustraliaMinister for Repatriation and Compensation)- I seek leave to make a very short statement in response.

The CHAIRMAN (Senator Webster -Is leave granted? There being no objection, leave is granted.

Senator WHEELDON - I must say I am impressed by what Senator Baume has said. I shall see that what he has said is conveyed to the Minister for Health (Dr Everingham).

Attorney-General's Department

Proposed expenditure, $62,764,000.

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