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AUS: New Blood Screening Test

Media Release

Australian Health Ministers Conference - Canberra

4 August 1999

Health Ministers Agree To New Blood Screening Test

All Australian Health Ministers, meeting in Canberra today, agreed that the Australian Red Cross Blood Service needed to implement as quickly as possible a newly developed test that more accurately screens blood donations for HIV and hepatitis C.

The need for urgent discussion about the new Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT) had been submitted as an agenda item to the Australian Health Ministers Conference by Federal Health and Aged Care Minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge well before the discovery in Victoria last month of a person contracting HIV from a blood donation - the first such case since mandatory screening was introduced in 1985.

"I have always believed that Australia's blood supply is one of the safest in the world, but when this new technology became available, I felt it should be discussed at a national level as a matter of urgency," Dr Wooldridge said.

"NAT not only significantly reduces the risk of HIV transmission through blood donations, but also significantly reduces the risk of the transmission of hepatitis C, which is a major step forward in achieving a safe and secure local blood supply.

"I am delighted that my colleagues in the States and Territories have agreed for the need to introduce this test and to commit appropriate funding to ensure that it becomes available within the very near future."

Nucleic Acid Testing is a new technology which is currently being introduced in developed countries to detect hepatitis C (HCV) and HIV in blood donations. NAT represents a new testing platform which, it is anticipated, will be able to be further developed to detect other blood-borne viruses.

Currently screening tests for HCV and HIV depend upon the detection of antibodies in the donor's blood. However, during the window period where viral markers have not developed in the blood, the current screening test is unable to detect the presence of such viruses.

NAT detects the presence of viral nucleic acid which is present much earlier than the antibody response. The window period for HCV is on average 82 days - it is estimated that with NAT, this will reduce to an average period of 22 days. However, unlike HIV, it is believed that the concentration of hepatitis C virus in the window period before it is detected with NAT, is probably too low to result in the transmission of the virus.

In the case of HIV, NAT is able to reduce the average window period from 22 days to around 11 days.

Ministers noted it would cost $14.4 million to the Australian Red Cross Blood Services to set up and operate a national network of NAT facilities in 1999-00, and a further $13.8 million a year thereafter to maintain the testing network.

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