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'Public has right to know'
Professor Michael Banner
'Public has right to know'

After the BSE crisis ministers commissioned a team of experts, led by Professor Michael Banner, to look at how hospitals should deal with incidents where patients have been exposed to the risk of catching vCJD.

Despite repeated requests he has not been allowed to see the report into the state of decontamination in English hospitals.

Professor Banner says, "It's really quite absurd and unbelievable that the document has not been made available... It's astonishing that anyone would wish to hold back information from the public about the state of hospitals."


NHS logo
The NHS letter was outrageous according to Professor Banner
Kate Priestley, the then-chief executive of NHS estates, sent a letter on 26 September 2000 to David Hurrell, the technical co-ordinator of the project.. It asked that all copies of the report should be destroyed.

Professpr Banner says, "It's an outrageous letter for anyone to have written".

On Friday 11 November, Panorama approached the Department of Health and asked three questions:

1) Why has Michael Banner, Chair of the Incident Panel, been refused sight of the report?
2) Why, if this was only an interim piece of work not considered for publication, was consideration given to which photos might be used for the cover of the final report last summer?
3)Why was it decided, in the light of the somewhat negative outcome of the report and at the express request of Ministers, that the final version and earlier draft reports remain strictly confidential?

The Department of Health replied by saying that this line of questioning was "silly" and reiterated its position that the snapshot survey was not necessarily representative of the NHS as a whole and that a fuller survey was underway.

Panorama would now like to ask why, if they were so silly, were many of the people involved in the report being telephoned on Friday and asked not to talk to Panorama?

In the programme Mr Hurrell says that from the outset everyone was working on the basis that the report would be made public.

High priority

Alan Milburn
Milburn gave the project the highest priority
The project had been given 'the highest priority' by the Department of Health, and Secretary of State Alan Milburn wanted them to proceed with the utmost urgency.

Mr Hurrell was technical co-ordinator of a similar report into Scottish Hospitals, which was made public in February this year.

Mr Hurrell said the English report's findings were virtually identical to the one carried out in Scotland, which said, "The state of decontamination in the NHS in Scotland gives serious cause for concern."

It also spoke of "many shortcomings" which could "increase the likelihood of adverse health occurrences to both patients and staff."

There are more than a million operations each year in the UK, which involve procedures likely to carry a risk of exposure to vCJD. Scientists agree that a corrupted form of a protein, prion, is at least part of the agent which causes vCJD.

This prion is resistant to the most common techniques for stopping the spread of infection via surgical instruments. According to the Scottish decontamination report, "Effective cleaning to remove prion protein from medical devices is therefore paramount."

No one has yet become infected with vCJD from a surgical procedure. But the latest research shows how effectively prions can bind to steel surfaces.

I think these results will inevitably cause concern

Professor John Collinge
A team led by Professor John Collinge at Imperial College, London, conducted the research.

He says, "I think these results will inevitably cause concern, but the prions do stick easily to metal surfaces and they are not easy to get off and they can transmit the disease quite efficiently."

And Professor James Ironside, of the National CJD Surveillence Unit, believes that evidence now proves that the risk of spreading vCJD from human to human is no longer theoretical.

He says, "... now we've transmitted the disease experimentally, so it is no longer a theoretical risk, it's a real risk."

Coming clean

See also:

23 Oct 01 | Wales
Surgery flaws pose CJD risk
10 Oct 01 | Health
CJD risk database proposed
06 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
Q&A: What is CJD?
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