Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Chomhairle, as an seans a thabhairt dom an ceist seo a ardú. I recently asked the Minister for Health and Children about the plans for bio-preparedness in this State. He referred me to the report, "Biological Threats: A Health Response for Ireland", which was produced by the expert committee on contingency planning for biological threats. It was published last May.
The report recommends the designation of key hospitals as centres for the reception of patients with smallpox and quarantine units for those who have been exposed to smallpox. In keeping with best practice and in the event of an outbreak of a contagious disease, the emphasis is on containment or preventing the epidemic from spreading. Patients diagnosed with a disease such as smallpox should be isolated in a negative pressure isolation room in a designated unit. The expert committee's report also states that in cases of suspected anthrax, plague or tularaemia, all human samples will be analysed in the public health laboratory at Cherry Orchard Hospital.
Cherry Orchard Hospital opened in the 1950s, when the Dublin Fever Hospital on Cork Street transferred its services to Ballyfermot. Its admissions policy obliges it to admit all cases of schedule infectious diseases. It has four wards available for the treatment of communicable diseases. Three of these are in regular use and one is available to meet any emergency situation. The facilities provided by Cherry Orchard Hospital are vital in the event of a State-wide outbreak of an infectious disease or if the country was struck, either deliberately or accidentally, by chemical or biological weapons.
I was recently advised that Cherry Orchard Hospital might be downgraded from an acute hospital to a step down facility from 1 January 2003. The Minister for Health and Children must clarify the position of the Government in relation to the current and future status of the hospital. As the only hospital specifically equipped to deal with infectious diseases in the State, it would be extremely shortsighted if the isolated units in the hospital were closed and the hospital downgraded. If downgrading is to proceed, will the Minister explain both the reasons for it and the ramifications? Will he provide funding to other facilities so they will be prepared and fitted out with the equipment they would be required to have on standby in case of emergency?
The reality of closing down hospital units and reducing service without preparing contingencies has become only too clear recently with the tragic death of baby Bronagh Livingstone in Monaghan. It is not good enough that the staff at the hospital and the general public still do not know what is planned for Cherry Orchard Hospital from 1 January next. In light of the above and in view of the recent decision by the IMO to direct public health doctors and medical professionals not to participate in a meeting arranged by a sub-group dealing with the threat of bio-terrorism, will the contingency plans for a bio-terrorism attack not fall into disarray? I call on the Minister to halt any plans to downgrade Cherry Orchard Hospital. Instead, he should have the hospital upgraded in line with the assessment of the Irish Medical Council recommendations.