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Alarm as polio vaccine is tainted by infected donor

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Family doctors and information help lines have been inundated with calls after it was announced last week that plasma from a British man infected with the human equivalent of mad cow disease was used to make a widely distributed polio vaccine.

Health Minister Michael Martin said about 83,500 doses of the polio vaccine had been distributed between January 1998 and January 1999. About 50,000 to 60,000 had been administered.

Martin said he has been assured by medical experts that there is "zero risk" of contracting the variant form of Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease, but that the public had a right to know about the distribution of the vaccine.

So far, there have been 88 cases of the fatal disease in the UK and one in Ireland.

One of the people who received the polio vaccine was the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who was given a booster in September 1998 before an official visit to China.

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There is no evidence so far that the disease can be passed by blood, but as a precaution many countries have banned taking transfusions from people who lived in Britain during the height of the BSE scare in the 1990s.

"It is important to make the point that the person’s donation was one of 22,000 donations which were used to make a pool," Martin said. "This in turn was combined with another pool to give final dilution of one donation out of 63,800."

The minister said there was a huge dilution before the blood plasma was used to make the human serum albumin. This was then used to make the vaccine.

UK-sourced albumin is no longer used for any Irish vaccines or medicines, having been phased out since 1998. U.S. and Belgian albumen is now used instead, the minister said.

The Irish Medicines Board, which has responsibility for all medicines licensing, was informed of the Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease donor diagnosis by the UK vaccine manufacturer on Dec. 12.

Health boards throughout the country were instructed to set up information telephone lines if worried parents wanted to check if their children had received the vaccine involved.

A different vaccine made by another company was also distributed at the time.

"I think people will be concerned," Martin said. "That is why I decided to give all of the facts up front."

The minister said he was "100 percent happy" there is no risk.

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