I am grateful to you for allowing me to raise this matter and I am grateful to the Minister for coming in to reply. The Minister will be aware of the case of a doctor jailed in England for gross misconduct and negligence in that he performed surgical operations on patients while suffering from a highly contagious form of hepatitis B. Hundreds of patients were put at risk and many contracted the virus. There is an Irish dimension in so far as the doctor in question worked for periods in Dublin, Limerick, Galway and in the General Hospital, Tullamore, in my constituency. I understand that during that time he assisted in many routine surgical procedures. The Minister should ensure that the hospitals in which he worked carry out a detailed survey to ascertain the number of operations performed and how many patients were exposed to the risk in this country. What steps have been taken to date to compile this information? What action does the Minister propose in view of this experience and what procedures are in place to deal with this problem?
I understand the guidelines state that a doctor suffering from a contagious disease must confide in a colleague who is empowered to restrict the practice of the person in question and surgery would be prohibited as the surgeon would, in effect, refrain from performing operations. Hepatitis B is a contagious virus and can result from contact with blood, saliva, urine or semen of an infected person. It must be noted that the disease can be transmitted through the tiniest scratch with a contaminated needle. Patients can fall seriously ill as the liver becomes inflamed or damaged. Most sufferers have few, if any, symptoms but others suffer from fever, nausea, vomiting, jaundice or abdominal pain. Fatigue and debility may persist.
I am aware that all front line health care staff are offered vaccination against hepatitis B but this is not sufficient for a number of reasons. It has been suggested that all non-national doctors should be vaccinated on a compulsory basis. This would be a doubtful procedure from an ethical point of view and would be less than acceptable on medical grounds because a person may already be a carrier. Will the Minister be specific in his intentions to allay public anxiety in this matter? I understand that within two months of a vaccination health care workers are screened to establish that they are sero positive. Those who fail to respond are offered a further vaccination and screened and those who still fail to respond may have an immune deficiency or may be a carrier. I also understand that a specific blood test is required to establish if a person is a carrier. Is this routine practice in this country?
I hope the Minister will tackle this problem to ensure that patients who may have been exposed are traced and dealt with accordingly and that patients in the future are not placed at such a risk. I look forward to hearing his reply.