Serious lapse

Around 23 children with thalassemia in Junagadh, who have had to endure hitherto frequent blood transfusions to stay alive, are now been burdened with having to battle HIV as well, thanks to the carelessness of blood banks. The children reportedly tested positive for HIV at the government hospital in Junagadh.

Whether they contracted the virus at this hospital or elsewhere is not clear yet as several of them were undergoing blood transfusions at other hospitals too. Over a 100 thalassemic children are said to have undergone blood transfusions over the past year. How many of them contracted HIV will have to be investigated. Both hospital authorities and parents are being parsimonious with the truth.

While the former has sought to absolve itself of responsibility by claiming that the patients bring the blood and that the hospital only does the transfusion, several of the parents are denying that they access blood from multiple sources.

 Nearly 3,000 children with thalassemia in India get infected with the HIV virus annually. Blood banks, including those run by the Indian Red Cross, use outdated testing methods such as ELISA that fail to identify blood recently contaminated by the HIV virus. This method is less accurate than the more expensive but advanced Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT). Last year, the Red Cross and organisations representing children with thalassemia requested the Gujarat government to set up centres with facilities for NAT.

Their request fell on deaf ears as the maintenance cost of NAT is high. However, the experience of the 23 children stands testimony to the fact that the costs of not subjecting blood to NAT are far higher. Contaminated blood is not a problem that impacts thalassemic children alone. Anyone who needs to have a transfusion – post-surgery, accidents, etc – should be worried. And besides HIV, blood can be contaminated with Hepatitis B and C too.

While Karnataka can draw some satisfaction from the fact that it is the first state in the country to adopt NAT, it cannot afford to sit back. This facility is available in a Bangalore hospital alone. What about the rest of Karnataka? The state has a high HIV prevalence and chances of blood contamination are therefore high. The government must ensure that the terrible fate that has befallen Junagadh’s children is not replicated here.

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