Hunt begins for suspect blood

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BONN - Health authorities in Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France hunted yesterday for blood products they may have bought from a German company suspected of failing to use Aids screening.

German doctors, clinics and hospitals were overwhelmed by queries after the Health Minister urged millions of people operated on in the past decade to undergo tests if they feared they had been infected by tainted blood products.

Doctors and health organisations accused Horst Seehofer, the Health Minister, of causing unnecessary panic and said there was an infinitesimal chance that anyone had caught the HIV virus which causes Aids.

Italy, Switzerland and Austria said they were recalling blood products that may have originated from the company at the centre of the scandal, UB Plasma of Koblenz.

Switzerland and Austria said the measures were purely precautionary, since the products had been 'deactivated' or cleansed of viruses in processing. Health officials have stressed this applies to many blood derivatives, such as immunoglobulins given to travellers to prevent hepatitis infection. Austria said it was nevertheless contacting all patients treated with UB products and would, like Germany, offer them free HIV tests 'for their own peace of mind'.

France's Health Ministry said it was checking to see if any products stemming from UB Plasma had been imported.

Mr Seehofer recommended HIV tests for all those who had come into contact with blood products in the past decade, even though relatively little blood came via UB Plasma. 'Better one preventive measure too many than one too few when you're dealing with a deadly disease,' he told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.

Doctors are aghast at what they see as unnecessary undermining of patients' trust. The association of hospital doctors accused Mr Seehofer of using Aids tests for publicity.