Quebec health officials react quickly to possible blood contaminations

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A widening ban on the use of potentially contaminated blood in Quebec hospitals may raise unpleasant memories for some Canadians about the tainted-blood scandal of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Montreal Gazette reports elective surgeries and heart operations were cancelled Thursday at several Montreal hospitals due to concern about possible bacterial contamination of the province's blood supply at donor clinics.

Hospitals continue to perform emergency surgeries and elective procedures scheduled for Friday had not yet been cancelled, Louise Ayotte, acting interim assistant director of the Montreal Health and Social Services Agencies, told reporters according to the Gazette. The situation was under constant evaluation, she said.

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Héma-Québec, the provincial blood agency, ordered about half of the stock of red blood cells under a "don't use" edict on Wednesday night while it tests for possible bacterial contamination, the Gazette said.

But CBC News reported the quarantine measure affects about 70 per cent of Quebec's blood supply.

Héma-Québec spokesman Laurent-Paul Ménard called the ban "a preventative measure," the Gazette said.

Ménard said concerns were reported about small leaks in equipment used to collect blood from donors.

He told CBC News the leaks, or microcracks, in blood bags may be a manufacturing defect that risks exposing the blood to the air and create favourable conditions for bacterial growth.

Before the ban was announced, Quebec had a 10-day supply of blood for its transfusion network, he said, adding that donor collections would proceed normally during the testing.

Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert said "Héma-Québec has the reserves necessary to fulfill the needs of the hospitals except for some remote areas," CBC News reported.

Héma-Québec said in its bulletin that it's talking with the manufacturer to to assess potential risks and analyzing bacterial cultures on "many hundreds" of blood bags "to assure that these do not present any risk.

"To this point, no transfusion reaction of a bacterial-contamination nature has been reported to us," the agency said, according to the Gazette.

The quick response from Quebec blood-services and health officials may be due to the impact of the tainted-blood scandal more than two decades ago.

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Thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood that was not properly screened by the Canadian Red Cross, which managed the blood supply.

About 2,000 hemophiliacs and others who received blood and blood-product transfusions were infected with HIV and another 20,000 contracted hepatitis C, the Globe and Mail reported in a 2010 article.

A royal commission set up in 1993 to investigate what went wrong recommended the creation of Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec.

A number of programs set up to compensate tainted-blood victims and their families has paid out almost $3 billion, the Globe noted.