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Red Cross Knew of Blood Test In 1981

Nov 12, 2003 | CANADIAN PRESS

Canadian Red Cross officials knew about a test that could have helped screen out blood tainted by hepatitis C in 1981 but did not begin using it until 1990, documents obtained by a U.S. newspaper show.

The ALT test could have prevented thousands of cases of the disease, then known as non-A, non-B hepatitis, in the U.S. and Canada.

Reasons for the delay are clarified in a report written by Canadian Red Cross official John Derrick in August, 1981, following a meeting with his counterpart from the American Red Cross.

"As long as a test is not part of the standard operating procedures, the ARC (American Red Cross) cannot be held legally responsible for any illness resulting from transfusion with elevated ALT levels," Derrick wrote in the report.

The test, which detects elevated levels of a liver enzyme, had been found to predict the presence of hepatitis C with about 30 per cent accuracy.

The documents unearthed by The Kansas City Star shed new light on why the Canadian and U.S. Red Cross delayed testing. A U.S. expert group had recommended countrywide use of the test in January, 1981. Yet the testing was not begun until 1986 in the U.S. and not until 1990 in Canada.

The Canadian government has paid compensation to hepatitis C victims infected from 1986 to 1990, but has excluded people infected before 1986, saying there was no test available before then.

Derrick noted a "general strong feeling that until more information is available no one should test on a routine basis since all blood centres would then be obligated to test."

John Plater of the Canadian Hemophilia Society said he was astounded by the tone of the report.

"The whole frame of mind was, `We're not going to do anything more than we have to.' It's clear what he's also saying is, `Until the government tells us we've got to do it, we're not going to do it.'"

Hepatitis C patients in Canada hope incoming prime minister Paul Martin will, in light of the new evidence, reconsider Ottawa's decision to exclude hepatitis C patients infected before 1986 from a federal-provincial compensation package.

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