FOR most people who acquire viral infections such as HIV or Hepatitis C, their conditions are a consequence of the risks they have taken. For HIV – in Australia, at least – the primary risk is unprotected male-to-male sex. For Hepatitis C, it’s injecting drug use with dirty needles.
Thankfully, education and harm-reduction programs have reduced the spread of both diseases, although as the latest statistics on sexually transmitted infections in Australia show, more than 960 people were diagnosed last year with HIV – a quarter of them through heterosexual activity.
The transmission rates of Hepatitis C have also slowed in recent years, thanks largely to the growing acceptance of needle exchange programs, but there are still an estimated 230,000 people in this country carrying the virus, with an effective vaccine yet to be developed. In the early years of the disease’s rise to prominence, as many as 20,000 Australians were infected through no fault of their own, acquiring the virus through transfusions of contaminated blood or blood products.
As Joanne McCarthy reported this week, some of this group are watching what’s happening in the United Kingdom, where an official inquiry into tainted blood products has begun. One of the central areas for investigation is whether the UK authorities did enough to try to stop the spread of infected blood in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A more limited Senate inquiry into Hepatitis C and the Australian blood supply addressed this question in 2004, and found the steps taken at the time were “reasonable”, given a series of problems that surrounded the early versions of the screening tests.
At the same time, the Australian Red Cross was criticised on a range of fronts, and passing of the years has only magnified the impact of the decisions taken back then, given the time it can take for the Hepatitis C virus to wreak its havoc on the human body. Thankfully, dramatic progress in treatments in recent years has resulted in a drug regime that can rid the body of Hepatitis C with far fewer side effects than previously.
For some, however, this breakthrough has come too late. For them, and for the others whose lives have been affected by this medical misfortune, the federal government should look very closely at a new inquiry in this country if the UK investigation exposes the sort of wrongdoing that the tainted blood campaigners believe it will.