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Australian Senate committee decides against compensation for victims of infected blood

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7455.1518-f (Published 24 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1518
  1. Bob Burton
  1. Canberra

    An Australian Senate committee of inquiry into the infection of over 8000 people with hepatitis C from blood transfusions and blood products has proposed a fund to improve their access to healthcare services but ruled out a compensation scheme.

    Canada and Ireland have instituted compensation schemes covering loss of income and medical costs and—along with Great Britain—the provision of lump sum payments. It was a model that the Senate committee baulked at.

    Chairwoman of the committee, Senator Jan McLucas, said: “If we had gone down the route of a compensation tribunal, it is the view of the committee that that would be an obstacle to delivering practical support, [and] that governments would be less willing to be part of a committee [overseeing services] if financial compensation was part of the package.”

    Senator Steve Hutchins, who instigated the inquiry, is critical of government secrecy surrounding the A$7 million (£2.6m; $4.82m; €3.99m) paid to settle over 400 legal actions by victims infected between 1986 and 1990. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service (ARCBS)—which collects and distributes blood—began screening for hepatitis C in 1990, despite the 1986 US Food and Drug Administration advice to blood banks to screen for increased concentrations of alanine aminotransferase (ALT), which indicates that donors are much more likely to be carrying the virus.

    “Throughout the 1980s, the blood authorities in this country—the state and federal authorities—grappled with that idea. They continually rejected the idea of ALT testing,” Senator Hutchins told the Senate.

    A submission late in the inquiry process from James W Mosley, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Southern California, revealed that the blood service could be liable for not responding even earlier. Professor Mosley's submission stated that he gave a guest lecture at a Melbourne hospital in 1978 with Red Cross officials present. Professor Mosley wrote that he outlined the preliminary results of the landmark transfusion-transmitted viruses study, which identified raised ALT concentrations as an indicator of non-A, non-B hepatitis (as it was then known).

    Just before the finalisation of the committee's report the Australian Red Cross Blood Service apologised to those infected with hepatitis C from blood transfusions but refused to accept legal liability. “We maintain that we acted and took decisions responsibly and in accordance with the best scientific knowledge at the time and, accordingly, we do not accept liability,” Dr Brenton Wylie wrote in a statement read to victims.

    The Independent Blood Council (IBC), which represents about 700 victims of infected blood, is disappointed by the committee's findings. “They had a wonderful opportunity to solve all this now because so many people are suffering. The idea that you are going to have all these people around Australia who are going to have the time, the energy and the money to sue the Commonwealth government is a bit rich,” said the blood council's secretary, Mr Charles Mackenzie.

    The report and submissions are available at: www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/hepc/report/index.htm and www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/clac_ctte/hepc/submissions/sublist.htm

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