Doctor questions why babies at Adelaide children’s hospital were not transferred to Melbourne

A former head of Melbourne’s children’s hospital has questioned why four babies who died in Adelaide in the past month were not transferred to Victoria for potentially lifesaving heart surgery.

Yesterday, SA Health launched a review into a “cluster” of baby deaths at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide after a parliamentary committee heard a lack of infant heart surgery and life support services was to blame.

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Professor John Svigos told the committee the infants could have been saved if the right treatment were available in Adelaide.

Former chief executive of Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne — radiologist and consultant Dr John de Campo — this morning said the practice over the past two decades had been to send severely ill infants from Adelaide to Melbourne for specialist treatment.

“I don’t know the reason these babies weren’t sent, nor the diseases they had and whether they were operable diseases or not that’s all behind the curtain,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews yesterday rejected suggestions COVID-19 restrictions in his state prevented the four infants from being transferred to Melbourne for care, saying that decision had been made in South Australia.

“I don’t think it was a matter of restrictions there was a choice, not at our end but at the other end, for them not to be sent,” Mr Andrews said.

“I make no judgements about that.

Doctors at the hospital said they had issued warnings about avoidable cardiac deaths.(Facebook: WCH Alliance)

SA Premier Steven Marshall said he was not aware of any travel restrictions affecting infant medical transfer, but said he would wait for the SA Health review.

“I’m not aware of any restrictions with regards to travel that have led to this situation, but we’ll wait for those reviews to come back,” he said.

“We’ve got access to the top paediatric cardiologists in other jurisdictions around the country.”

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was making inquiries with the South Australian Government about the babies’ deaths.

“It’s an agonising situation for these parents that have lost their babies it’s just the worst imaginable of all things,” he said.

“I know it’s been treated with the utmost gravity by South Australia.”

Daily practice the ‘best outcome’

SA Health Minister Stephen Wade yesterday said there was not enough demand for paediatric heart surgery at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital to provide staff with the practice required to maintain competence in the procedures.

Health Minister Stephen Wade
Mr Wade said a review rejected cardiac services because there was not enough demand.(ABC News)

“Because of the low demand we wouldn’t have sufficient case load to maintain clinical capabilities,” he said.

Dr de Campo echoed that view this morning, saying babies and children receive the best care when they are treated by surgical teams who perform the same procedure very frequently.

“The outcomes are best if babies with complex, rare diseases are dealt with by a whole team that deals with them every day, not once a month. They have to be people that practise their craft every day.

“We don’t need to practise in South Australia. We need to take advantage of big volumes elsewhere.”

Doctors warned of ‘avoidable’ deaths last year

A business case, prepared by doctors last year, claimed the lack of paediatric cardiac services at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital contributed to at least one avoidable death and several near misses at the time.

The document acknowledges “skill maintenance” as a potential problem with such a service.

It argues the risk could be mitigated by having one surgeon perform all procedures and by having them collaborate with adult and interstate surgical services.

But Dr de Campo said it would need a team of about 40 staff to start a paediatric cardiac surgery unit at the Women’s and Children’s.

The July 2019 business case also argues for the establishment of an external oxygenation machines (ECMOs) life support service at the hospital.

An electronic billboard on Adelaide's Grange Road.
An electronic billboard on Adelaide’s Grange Road draws attention to the situation.(WCH Alliance)

Dr Michael Yung, medical head of the hospital’s paediatric intensive care unit, said incident reports concerning the lack of a cardiac service at the hospital had been sent to SA Health’s incident reporting platform, the Safety Learning System (SLS), but were “rejected”.

“The reason for the rejection is that we don’t have the [service] in place, therefore there’s nothing to report,” Dr Yung said.

“The SLS is not meant to blame individuals, it’s meant to address the system, so we thought it was appropriate [to submit the reports].”

He said health administrators had advised him to place the concerns on the hospital’s risk registry instead.

“To date, that still isn’t on the risk registry — I don’t understand why it’s not,” he said.

An SA Government spokesperson said the fact that several recent incidents were not recorded on the SLS “does not mean that they will not be looked in to”.

“The review could be undertaken by the teams involved in the case. Where necessary external clinicians are involved or the review is referred externally.”

Clive Palmer offers to pay for life support machines

Meanwhile, mining magnate Clive Palmer said he contacted senior staff at the hospital yesterday, offering to buy five ECMO machines, and was awaiting a response.

“This is a medical emergency, I think we need immediate action,” he told radio station FiveAA.

“I understand it’s been costing the SA Government $4-5 million every year to try to take young babies or dying babies over to Victoria hoping to get treatment there.

“If I donate the machines, surely the Government can carry the operating cost, which will be a lot less than the $5 million they spend now.

“We’re talking about young babies’ lives here.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Dr John de Campo as a former CEO at Adelaide’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

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Textile fibres can be transferred between clothing in the absence of contact 

Forensic experts have revealed for the first time that textile fibres can be transferred between two pieces of clothing without them touching. 

In small, compact and semi-enclosed spaces such as inside a lift, contactless transfer of fibres between garments can take place through the air. 

In experiments using florescent clothing fibres and UV light, UK researchers demonstrated fibre transfer between two people without physical contact.  

The findings have not been demonstrated before and could have major implications for fibre evidence in certain criminal cases. 

Discarded fibres from a guilty suspect’s clothes are frequently used in courtrooms as proof that they were in physical contact with a victim, including in the murder trials of Stephen Lawrence and Joanna Yeates. 

The new research shows that in other cases, some innocent suspects who left fibre traces may only have been in close proximity with a victim and may not have had physical contact with them.  

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Textile fibres can, under certain circumstances, be transferred between clothing in the absence of contact

‘The results of the study were remarkable,’ said Dr Kelly Sheridan, who led the research at Northumbria University. 

‘It not only proved that textile fibres can transfer between garments in the absence of contact, but they can do so in relatively high numbers.’

Because it has largely been assumed that fibre transfer only occurs when two surfaces touch, it is generally accepted in a case that two surfaces have been in contact at some point.

The team’s recent experiments tracked the airborne transfer of fluorescent fibres between clothing. 

Two people had these fibres attached to either jumpers, long sleeved tops and fleeces that they were wearing and stood in opposite corners of an elevator. 

Researchers used fluorescently tagged fibres (pictured in green under UV light) to track their airborne transfer between clothing

Researchers used fluorescently tagged fibres (pictured in green under UV light) to track their airborne transfer between clothing

The elevator operated as normal and non-participants of the study entered and exited as usual. 

The surfaces of the clothing were then photographed using UV-imagery techniques to determine the number of fibres that were transferred from one person to the other. 

When certain conditions were met, such as enough time, garment types that are prone to shredding fibres and a close-proximity setting, airborne transfer of fibres can occur, the team say. 

By matching fibres at the scene of a crime to items belonging to a suspect, investigators are able to place individuals at a crime scene

By matching fibres at the scene of a crime to items belonging to a suspect, investigators are able to place individuals at a crime scene


The FBI identifies fibre as the smallest unit of a textile material that has a length many times greater than its diameter.

More than half the fibres used in the production of textiles are synthetic, and include nylon, rayon, and polyester. 

Identifying rare or unusual fibres at a crime scene has increased in significance, as it may place a suspect at the scene of the crime.

Fibres are gathered from a crime scene using tweezers, tape, or a vacuum.

Once fibres are collected, they are brought to a lab and then placed under a microscope, where they are compared against fibres from a suspected source. 

Source: Crime Museum 

This airborne transfer could be in potentially significant numbers for fibre types such as cotton and polyester. 

As many as 66 and 38 fibres were observed in the experiments involving cotton and polyester donor garments, compared to 2 and 1 fibres in those involving acrylic and wool donor garments, respectively. 

Textile fibres are one of forensic sciences’ fundamental evidence types and have been pivotal in solving some of the UK’s most notorious crimes, including the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. 

By matching fibres at the scene of a crime to items belonging to a suspect, investigators are able to place individuals at a crime scene. 

In 2011, textile fibres, blood and hair linked to Stephen Lawrence were found on clothing seized from the men who were found guilty of his murder.  

Fibres also provided key evidence in the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010 and the Ipswich serial killings in 2006. 

These circumstances offer a ‘baseline’ for forensics researchers to evaluate the likelihood of an alleged activity leading to contactless transfer of fibres. 

The next step in the research will be finding out how exactly the fibres are transferred with direct contact.  

‘This research shows that airborne transfer is viable in a number of case scenarios despite previous beliefs and could explain the presence of fibres on a variety of surfaces,’ said study co-author Dr Matteo Gallidabino.

‘What is equally, if not more, important, is how that fibre was transferred from one surface to another.’

Dr Ray Palmer, former senior lecturer in forensics at Northumbria University and study co-author, has given evidence at numerous high-profile trials, including that of the Ipswich serial killings and the Claremont serial killings in Western Australia.

 The Claremont serial killings took place between 1996 and 1997, although a suspect was only brought to trial in November last year and is still to be sentenced. 

Stephen Lawrence, pictured, was killed in a racist attack back in April 1993. Although two men were convicted of killing Stephen in 2012, the remainder of a gang of at least five white youths involved in the attack are now unlikely to ever face prosecution

Stephen Lawrence, pictured, was killed in a racist attack back in April 1993. Although two men were convicted of killing Stephen in 2012, the remainder of a gang of at least five white youths involved in the attack are now unlikely to ever face prosecution

‘This study was designed so that the experimental parameters were as conducive to contactless transfer as possible, whilst still maintaining a real-life scenario,’ said Dr Palmer.

‘Since there is a paucity of published studies relating to contactless transfer, the results obtained from this study will be useful to forensic practitioners as a baseline, in evaluating how likely it is that a proposed activity or case circumstance has resulted in contactless transfer.’

The study has been published in Forensic Science International.  

UK forensics researcher Professor Ruth Morgan at University College London has previously highlighted the dangers of misinterpreted evidence – and how easily traces can spread from an innocent person to a crime scene. 

Research led by UCL revealed 22 per cent of criminal evidence at the Court of Appeal in 2018 may have been misinterpreted. 

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