Duo fears for DNA privacy

Wednesday, 11 August, 2004

Two Monash law academics are calling for urgent state government action following the disclosure that a private Melbourne company holds the DNA records of millions of Victorians.

Professor Graeme Hodge and senior lecturer Dr Jonathan Clough from the Law faculty have expressed alarm at a recent newspaper report regarding Genetic Health Services Victoria (GHSV) controlling cards that contain blood samples taken from Victorian newborns since 1970.

They believe a joint parliamentary committee should be set up to investigate the ownership of all records from state-contracted work, as well as the ethical and legal aspects of using the blood sample cards.

Every baby born in hospital in Australia undergoes a routine heel prick test, in which a small amount of blood is soaked onto an absorbent card and then tested for a range of conditions. In Victoria, this testing has been conducted by GHSV under government contract since 1970.

According to the newspaper report, the Parkville company believes it owns the cards and controls access to them.

Professor Hodge, director of Monash's Centre for the Study of Privatisation and Public Accountability, wants the state government to clarify its position on ownership of records held by GHSV.

"I would like to know what privacy safeguards are in place regarding the files at GHSV," he said.

"I understand that files can be accessed by police under an agreement with GHSV, and the state coroner has used samples to confirm the identity of bodies. But what would stop the company providing access to its files to insurance companies, or to someone pursuing a paternity case? "

Dr Clough said medical technology appeared to have outstripped the contractual relationship between the government and the company.

"When they started testing all Victorian newborns 34 years ago, the concept of accessing DNA was not on the horizon," he said. "Now I believe it is vital that the state government reviews the ownership and control of the file cards and ensures they are subject to all the proper safeguards."

Professor Hodge said it would be a tragedy if parents contemplated refusing blood testing of their newborns because of concerns over inadequate ethical and legal safeguards.

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