Wigan deny cover-up over Pongia hepatitis case

Wigan have denied a cover-up which could have put other players at risk by allowing their prop forward, Quentin Pongia, to play this season even though the club knew that he was suffering from hepatitis B.

Wigan have denied a cover-up which could have put other players at risk by allowing their prop forward, Quentin Pongia, to play this season even though the club knew that he was suffering from hepatitis B.

The New Zealand Test front-rower was found to have the potentially highly infectious and life-threatening disease after a blood test in February. Since then, he has played 14 matches, including the Challenge Cup final in Cardiff nine days ago, although he was left out of the side which played at Wakefield yesterday.

The Wigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay, said that Pongia had been dropped to avoid the possibility of "a media circus'' at Belle Vue and insisted that there had been no cover-up.

"We have been completely open about this,'' Lindsay said. "The day we got to know about Quentin's condition we alerted Rugby League headquarters. I raised the matter at the conference of Super League clubs at the start of the season. I made sure that they were aware of the situation, although the one thing I could not do, legally, was to name the player.

"We did everything we could. We got him treatment and were told that, if he takes a particular drug, there was almost certainly no risk.''

Despite that, Wigan took the precaution of giving blood tests and inoculations to their players and to some of the club's staff, although Lindsay denies claims in yesterday's News of the World that those who had the injections were told to keep them secret.

Lindsay added that he had contacted the Australian Rugby League for advice on its procedures and had been told that it allowed players with blood-bone infections to continue playing.

"The advice given to us was that we should not interfere with the player's career and livelihood, but must take all necessary precautions and monitor the player's treatment," Lindsay explained. "We did exactly that. The player was immediately placed in the hands of a consultant specialising in hepatitis B. The consultant immediately placed the player on a course of treatment and a specific drug which eliminates the risk of infection. Quentin has been on that treatment for four months and his condition has improved and, hopefully, a total recovery is imminent.

"I am fully aware that the Rugby Football League have regulations in place, such as immediate withdrawal from the field should a player bleed and guidance on maintaining sterilised areas within changing rooms. I am also aware that the matter is scheduled for discussion by the League's own medical committee following the advice presented to them by Wigan in January."

Pongia is believed to have had the condition since birth, but not to have been aware of it until the blood test earlier this year.

"Quentin, having had his treatment, wants to continue playing but, out of deference to the game's reputation, we have asked him to stand down until the matter is fully considered by the Rugby Football League and the Super League clubs,'' Lindsay said.

A spokesman for the League said: "We are aware of the situation and should be able to make a statement early in the coming week.''

Lindsay has also contacted the Rugby Football Union and the Football Association but discover that they have no guidelines on the matter. "It is something that sport in general needs to consider,'' he said. "Under the Kolpak ruling, there are players from a variety of ethnic backgrounds coming into the country.''

Pongia is a Maori, a group among whom there can be a high incidence of inherited hepatitis B. "There will be players at other clubs in this country who have the same condition and do not even know,'' Lindsay predicted.

Pongia, who is 33, was not willing to comment yesterday.

He is one of the few players to have played professionally in New Zealand, Australia, France and Britain and is renowned as one of the fittest forwards of his generation. He has not infrequently played the full 80 minutes in the front row in Test matches, something almost unheard of in the modern era.

His diagnosis is the second medical drama to have affected Wigan this season. Their coach, Mike Gregory, is in America for treatment for a debilitating bacterial infection, unconnected with Pongia's condition.

HEPATITIS B THE DEADLY VIRUS THAT STALKS CONTACT SPORTS

Hepatitis B is 100 times more infectious than HIV and is spread in the same way, through exchange of bodily fluids. That means anyone involved in a contact sport is potentially at risk.

To transmit the virus, the blood of an infected player would have to splash into an open wound on another player. In rugby league, players frequently end the game spattered in other people's blood so they are at higher risk than players of most other sports.

The blood-bin policy, which requires injured players to leave the field until bleeding is stanched, was introduced to reduce the risk of diseases spreading by blood to blood contact. But although this has reduced the risk it cannot eliminate it.

Hepatitis B attacks the liver and can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. Most adults who are infected recover and become immune to the virus, but a few cannot clear it and become carriers, with the potential to spread it to others. There is no cure.

The virus is transmitted through sex or through transfusion with infected blood (in the UK all donated blood is checked for hepatitis B to prevent this). Drug addicts who share needles are at particular risk. But it can also be transmitted through sharing an infected person's toothbrush or razor.

Surgeons are at particular risk and a number have become infected after scratching themselves while operating on patients with hepatitis B. They then lose their livelihoods because they cannot continue to operate and risk passing the virus on. All surgeons are now vaccinated against the virus.

Other healthcare workers are at risk from needlestick injuries - pricking themselves accidentally on a discarded needle that has been used to give an injection to a carrier. This is a frequent accidental cause of transmission.

Sports players are at lower risk. But as experience from Japan showed, where 11 of the 74 members of the University of Okayama's gridiron football team caught hepatitis B from a team-mate, they are not immune.

Hepatitis B is commonest in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In the UK about one in 1,000 people is estimated to be carriers. It is different from hepatitis A, which is transmitted through contaminated water or food, and causes an infection of the liver leading to jaundice.

JEREMY LAURANCE, HEALTH EDITOR

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