Hospitals besieged in scare over HIV tests

Anxious callers jam phone lines after agonising Easter wait
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Hospitals and clinics reopening after Easter were besieged with thousands of callers yesterday anxious to check whether they had been given the wrong HIV- test results. The wait for information began on Friday with leaked news of a faulty testing procedure.

Figures from the test manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories, revealed that they have so far found four positive results which falsely tested negative in more than 2.5 million tests world-wide, including one in Britain.

The Chicago-based company, which has a British office in Maidenhead, Berkshire, suspended distribution of the IMx HIV test on 25 March when the problem emerged and contacted the Department of Health four days later.

Clinics received details from Abbott Laboratories at the end of last week.

But as doctors and counsellors reported difficulties in reassuring many callers yesterday, there were criticisms that the Department of Health should have acted sooner. It planned to make an announcement this week.

A spokeswoman said: "We have been talking to people and trying to set up helplines and counselling.

"We hope to issue guidance to health authorities and trusts shortly and certainly by the middle of the week."

However, discussions were not held with Aids charities. A spokesman for the Terrence Higgins Trust said: "It is right to co-ordinate a response to news like this.

"But ... it does seem to have taken a very long time for a coordinated response to happen."

Derek Bodell, National Aids Trust director, said the manner in which the problem emerged put an onus on the Department of Health to act speedily in future.

"There needs to be a complete review of how these announcements are handled."

The department was criticised last year for releasing details of a potential health risk with certain contraceptive pills before doctors had been told.

David Free, sexual health services manager for Guy's and St Thomas's Hospitals in London, said they realised the potential for a scare as soon as they learnt of the fault from the manufacturers last Thursday.

Switchboard and casualty staff were briefed to answer queries during the weekend. Genito-urinary clinics re-opened yesterday, with the first calls coming at 8am and reaching a rate of 20 an hour.

A handful of patients arrived in person.

Mr Free said the distress caused by the incident had been considerable.

People who took a test because of sexual abuse or rape were reliving the experience. In some instances, the alert had alarmed couples who had taken the test before trying for a baby.

In one case, a caller who had been unfaithful some time earlier was having to face again the worries of whether to tell a partner and children if the test proved positive.

"Because HIV is such a serious diagnosis, it's very hard to tell people they are probably all right. People want to know definitely," he said.

He feared the scare would dent public confidence in HIV tests and hoped that, in future, any news would be released to coincide with clinic opening hours.

Robert Passas, scientific affairs manager for Abbott Laboratories, said they were evaluating the test and hoped to have an improved version available by next month.

He said the company would meet the costs of re-testing but emphasised that the IMx procedure currently detected "virtually all" HIV-positive cases.

Up to 30,000 of between 100,000 and 125,000 HIV tests carried out since September are understood to have been carried out by the IMx system, which was introduced in Britain in July.

Beverley Priest, from London Lighthouse, Europe's biggest HIV centre, said she hoped that the incident would be a public health education lesson.

"It shows there are a lot of people who thought they might be positive," she said.