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Armed Forces: Blood Transfusions

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2008

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

As the Secretary of State for Defence informed the House on 10 January, a small number of UK service personnel who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have received life-saving emergency transfusions of US blood. We had identified from US and UK records that 18 of these UK service casualties might have received blood or blood products from US emergency donors at their field hospitals where samples from the donor might not have had a valid retrospective test. There was no evidence that a blood-borne disease had been transmitted from a US donor to a UK service recipient, but there was a small risk for these individuals that a blood-borne disease was transferred without being detected. We therefore commenced contacting these individuals on 20 December last year to offer retrospective tests for these few individuals as a sensible reassurance measure.

All UK service personnel who might be affected (or if appropriate their next of kin) were contacted personally by their own military or civilian GP. The precise means of communicating was decided by each individual GP, since they are the only persons able to balance all the factors affecting their patients' situation. In some cases, initial contact will not have been made face-to-face, whether because of the patient's location or other factors. I am satisfied that GPs acted appropriately in difficult circumstances and with their patients' welfare uppermost in their thoughts. However, by 11 January, all 18 patients (or if appropriate their next of kin) had been counselled on the advisability of having their blood tested and offered the necessary tests. It is of course the patient's right to decide whether to take any such test.

An individual's tests will take two to three weeks to process. However, the blood samples should not be taken until a period of some months has elapsed since the transfusion took place. This means that not all the individuals in the group of 18 patients have yet had their tests completed.

Patients have an absolute right to medical confidentiality either from direct disclosure of their personal information or from indirect disclosure resulting from the release of wider information. This means that in order to protect patient confidentiality in such a small group, the department is unable to reveal any further details, on either an individual or group basis, of the number of those contacted who elected to take the tests offered. This also includes revealing details of the results of such tests, whether positive or negative, unless explicit and informed consent is given by the patient concerned. Indeed, the department itself has no right to know an individual's test results without the patient's explicit consent.

The MoD fully recognises the distress that this will have caused individuals. We continue to offer help and support to those to whom we have offered retrospective testing and to others who have become concerned as a result of the media coverage.

Any blood transfusion carries some degree of risk. We and our coalition partners are committed to minimising those risks. The crucial point remains that an emergency blood transfusion from donors on or near the battlefield can be—in some cases certainly has been—the only way of saving the lives of gravely wounded UK personnel.