The drama surrounding the number games of political parties to keep or not to keep Prime Minister Romano Prodi in the saddle was hogging the limelight last week around the world in general, and Italy in particular. As the Professor with his resignation letter was trying to silence his critics, there was shock and dismay brewing in medical circles across the country.
The story of rising hopes, fading expectations that occupy all waking moments of every organ recipient was lived again last week in Florence, where a female doctor made a mistake with devastating consequences. After examining a clinically-dead woman with AIDS, the doctor wrongly put down “negative” instead of “positive” on the autopsy report.
“A human, but terrible mistake,” wrote daily La Repubblica. Two words mixed up, and the fate of three people takes a cruel turn.
“We will take disciplinary action against those responsible,” Enrico Rossi of the Regional Health Authority of Tuscany was quoted by Deutsche-Presse-Agentur (dpa) as saying. Three victims who received the woman’s kidneys and liver would receive adequate compensation, he promised.
But observers asked: Is that enough to reassure nervous patients from Padua to Palermo? Politicians are now demanding a re-thinking of the health system’s entire control mechanisms.
As yet, it is unclear whether the organ recipients have been infected by the disease, but doctors think this is highly probable.
“In any case, the life of the three patients is not at risk. Even if they were infected, today’s medication can ensure their survival,” one of the doctors said. Whether this is much consolation to the victims and their families remain doubtful.
Health Minister Livia Turco described the incident as a “one-off accident” and begged Italians to continue “trusting our system.” The Director of Italy’s National Transplant Centre, Alessandro Nanni, emphasised it was the first time in 40 years that such a mistake had happened.
In fact, two youths in Bologna were infected by the virus as a result of a transplant in 1986, but no HIV tests on transplant organs were envisaged at the time. Last week’s serious accident happened at the worst possible moment, with the Italian health system receiving tough criticism in recent months.
At the beginning of January, an article in weekly L’Espresso caused the first shock: A journalist published photos from the Roman Polyclinic Umberto I, showing dog faeces and dozens of cigarette butts on the corridors as well as unlocked laboratories with radioactive substances.
A few weeks later a new scandal erupted when a 16-year-old female student in Calabria in southern Italy fell into a coma after a routine operation because of a 10-minute blackout in the operating theatre.
“We absolutely need double controls now,” said Alessandro Ghirardini, who is responsible for patient security in the Health Ministry. If and how doctors, hospitals and politicians can win back the trust of the sick is doubtful. Maybe they will rely on the age-old saying: “Public memory is weak.”