The Hepatitis C Scandal in Ireland
In 1994, it was disclosed that the Blood Transfusion Service Board had failed in 1976 to prevent the use of blood donated by a woman who was known to have jaundice. This was used to make the product Anti-D, despite there being a policy in 1968 that blood should not be accepted from anyone who had suffered jaundice or infectious hepatitis. It was given to some women during childbirth in the late 1970s and early 1990s.
In 2008 a case against a doctor involved in the Hepatitis C scandal was dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Seven charges had been brought against Dr. Cecily Cunningham, a former biochemist at the Blood Transfusion Service Board, under Section 23 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. She was charged with unlawfully and maliciously causing a "noxious thing", namely infected Anti-D immunoglobin, to be taken by seven people, thereby inflicting grievous bodily harm.
Dr. Terry Walsh, a consultant haematologist and former assistant national director with the blood bank, had been charged along with Dr Cunningham over the Anti-D product. However, he died as allegations relating to his involvement were before the court.
The decision not to prosecute means that nobody has stood trial for the infection of more than 1,600 people with Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products -- a scandal that is one of the biggest health tragedies in the history of the State.
In the beginning there was nothing. The State had infected its own citizens with Hepatitis C and that same state was not going to do very much about it, or at least that was how it seemed to us. We were very angry, depressed, despairing and in a quandary as to what we would do or who was going to do it. We were offered counselling in mental institutions with little anonymity and without choice of counsellor. The information provided to us by the Department of Health was inadequate. In fact, they seemed to be overwhelmed by the whole scandal. Getting information from the then Irish Blood Transfusion Service Board was nigh on impossible.
Nevertheless, there was a small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Women infected with Hepatitis C by a contaminated blood product, Anti-D, had formed Positive Action. This support group fought for justice for their own just cause. We admired the way they took on the State and its agencies. Could we possibly do the same? To this aim a group of us met in Liberty Hall on 22nd April, 1995, with a view towards forming a support and action group. Quite frankly we had no idea as to how we were going to proceed. back to top
Finding Our Way
On the same day Positive Action held a meeting in the main hall. At the end of their meeting the women of Positive Action came to offer us support and advice. In hindsight their help was invaluable, as it gave some pointers on the direction to go. It was decided that we draft a letter outlining our plight and concerns which was circulated to all members of the Oireachtas.
The next step was to decide on a name for our fledgling group. Transfusion Positive was suggested and duly adopted. On the 13th May, 1995, we held our first meeting as Transfusion Positive in Powers Hotel on Kildare Street. We elected a committee and there were about 40 people in attendance. Members who attended that meeting shared the same stresses and feelings. As one put it; it was like being on death row relative to hospital visits to Hepatitis C units. We were living on weekly, monthly reprieves.
At that meeting it was agreed to seek a meeting with the Minister for Health and the opposition spokesperson for Health. Several speakers who had been invited to the meeting pulled no punches. We were left in no doubt that the challenge facing us in our fight for justice was enormous. The meeting with the Minister transpired and while he had sympathy for our plight he gave very little away. On a positive note, he did recognise Transfusion Positive as a representative body and agreed to negotiate with us in the future. He also granted us £5,000 of Lotto funds. back to top
In January, 1995, the Minister for Health announced that the Anti-D women would be given fair compensation. A non-statutory Tribunal was established for this purpose. The main thrust of our talks with the Minister and his officials was to gain access to this Tribunal. On the 12th September, 1995, the Minister announced that Transfusion Positive would be included in this Tribunal. However, this was when the games started for real. Unlike the Anti-D women, how could we prove beyond any reasonable doubt that we had been infected with Hepatitis C by the State?
On consulting with our legal team it was decided to pursue our case as with the legal term The Balance of Probability. This entailed trawling through our medical records, in particular the records of surgical procedures during which we received blood transfusions/blood products contaminated with Hepatitis C. It also necessitated obtaining material witnesses i.e. family members etc. to verify our evidence.
Obtaining hospital and G.P. records from the Blood Transfusion Services Board was problematic. The Blood Transfusion Services Board records were in a state of disarray. Two Department of Health officials were most helpful in applying pressure on the hospitals and the blood bank to provide the records. There also remained outstanding problems to be resolved, namely the primary and secondary care of those infected and this entailed protracted talks and long hours of debate with Department of Health officials. back to top
Eventually an agreement was reached, the terms of which were put to a general meeting in Buswells Hotel on 2nd December, 1995, where in principle it was accepted by all. In due course the Health Amendment Act, 1996, was presented to the Dail and Seanad where it passed all stages. In late March 1996 the non-Statutory Tribunal under the late Mr. Justice Egan began hearing compensation cases. Many of our members were accommodated at this Tribunal. Later on many of us were in a position to return to the now Statutory Tribunal and the High Court for further compensation. Preceding this was an expert report which the State profiled as the be all and end all of enquiries.
This was a good report when we considered the vast amounts of information which was suppressed from it. The chair of this expert group, Dr. Hederman O'Brien, is entirely blameless for the content of the subsequent report. One of our members gave evidence before the Finlay Tribunal, which was established to investigate the circumstances of people infected with Hepatitis C through the administration of contaminated blood and blood products within the State. This member gave an excellent account of the effect of infection by contaminated blood and blood products administered by the State on men, women and children. Another member, Donor L, gave evidence on the issue of late notification in the Munster Region, an issue which has yet to be resolved. back to top
We have come a long way from that day in Liberty Hall. We are now to the fore in gaining the services and ensuring their smooth delivery to our members. We have two seats on the Consultative Council on Hepatitis C. We maintain a constant rapport with the Department of Health and Children and other State agencies.
Our crowning glory has been the opening of our office in November 2003 by the Minister for Health and Children. Prior to this the kitchens of our Chairperson, Maura Long and Secretary, Susan Gaughran acted as our meeting place. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for their patience and unwavering endurance.
Can we rest on our laurels? The answer is an emphatic no. New and even more complex problems arise almost daily. One would have to spend a day in our office to grasp the enormous daily workload undertaken voluntarily by our long serving Chairperson, Maura Long and our Secretary, Susan Gaughran. Indeed, the same can be said of all of our committee. Down through the years we have had disappointments, victories, laughter, marvellous weekends away and much more.
We remain eternally vigilant; our achievements have come at a very high price. I wish you all the best possible health, peace of mind and the very best of luck. We always need that!! back to top