VA Says More Contamination Errors Possible

Veterans have been reported to have tested positive for HIV, <"">hepatitis and other life-threatening pathogens following shoddy colonoscopies and endoscopies at three Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. The VA says it is unable to confirm if the cases are connected to treatment at its sites, but has warned nearly 11,000 veterans who received care at those hospitals to undergo blood testing. Many believe dirty equipment is to blame. Now, according to the Associated Press (AP), other VA patients have not been warned about similar mistakes with the same equipment at more than 12 other VA centers.

HIV and hepatitis B and C are spread by contact with infected body fluids, especially blood. HIV—the human immunodeficiency virus—is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome); AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. Hepatitis B and C are liver diseases that can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. Vaccines exist only for hepatitis B. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C can all be fatal.

The shoddy tests were conducted as far back as five years ago and put VA patients at risk because they were treated with equipment that was not appropriately sterilized, thus exposing them to the bodily fluids of other patients, noted the AP in a prior report. The VA acknowledged in its warnings letters that the invasive procedures potentially exposed them to other patients’ bodily fluids. Also, the VA admitted in late March that water tubes and reservoirs it used in colonoscopies and endoscopies were rinsed—not disinfected—between procedures, which could expose subsequent patients to contamination.

The VA’s chief patient safety officer, Dr. Jim Bagian, would not name the additional facilities where incidents may have occurred. He also maintained that the three VA facilities identified previously—Murfreesboro, TN, Miami, FL, and Augusta, GA—are the only ones with “any kind of appreciable risk” of contamination, reported the AP. As of today, five former patients at the three hospitals tested positive for HIV; 34 tested positive for hepatitis, said the AP, which added that infection origin remains unclear.

In an earlier Washington Times article, the VA admitted that the three hospitals did not appropriately sterilize colonoscopy equipment on a variety of occasions since 2003. Also, WSMV said in an earlier report that, late last year the VA found a wrong tubing valve might have been used during procedures as far back as April 2003, which could have resulted in body fluid transmission between patients.

Bagian told the AP that conducting blood tests for patients who received treatment at the other, unnamed locations, would result in unnecessary patient “anxiety.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has set a tentative June date for a hearing in which the VA inspector general is to report on a review of the issue, following a request by Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina—the ranking Republican on the Committee.

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