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Lab Technician reusing needles in California
Apr 21, 1999

Hi! I was shocked like everyone else to discover that a lab technician reused needles at SmithKline Beecham. Although I did not go to that lab, I have had numerous blood tests performed, mostly to check iron levels. I never asked the technicians to show me the needle beforehand, it never crossed my mind that a tech would do something like this. Should I be concerned about the needles used on me or wait to see if my lab makes news? Thanks!

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Thank you for your question.

The incident you are referring to here was so strange and unusual that it became newsworthy. The news story you heard about (see below) was a very rare occurrence. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that what occurred here is widespread. In the United States, needles are used only once and should never be reused. Reusing needles in the United States is inexcusable. Because this employee did not follow standard infection control practices, she was fired from her job.

Unless you were one of the patients unnecessarily exposed to bloodborne diseases due to this employee's actions, there is no need to get tested for HIV or any other bloodborne disease.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).

For your reference:

April 19, 1999 (Reuters Health) - The firing of a phlebotomist from SmithKline Beecham Clinical Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, after she was seen reusing a needle to draw blood from a patient, has sparked an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Health Services (DHS), and local health departments, according to a statement issued late last week by the California DHS.

SmithKline Beecham officials learned of the incident on March 22, at which point the employee was interviewed and admitted that, at times, she reused needles. The woman was suspended that day and subsequently dismissed. On April 7th, the California DHS was fully informed of the situation, Dr. John Rosenberg, state epidemiologist, told Reuters Health.

Approximately 3,600 patients who had blood drawn by the woman since June 1, 1997, at the Palo Alto facility, located in an affluent neighborhood near Stanford University, will receive a notification letter that will offer them free screening for HIV and hepatitis B and C at another facility.

The California DHS will try to get the letters mailed before Monday to all the patients who had blood drawn by the phlebotomist, Dr. Rosenberg told Reuters Health. A toll-free number will be included for any questions, and in-person counseling will be made available at a site under the supervision of the DHS.

The woman was also observed to have needles that were ready to be cleaned by a "home-made" disinfection process. This practice "...may have reduced an already low risk of infection from any viruses that might have been present," Dr. Rosenberg said. She admitted to reusing only a small number of needles during her 2.5-year employment with the laboratory.

"We don't know why she did this," Dr. Rosenberg said, and "...we may never know." However, based on their interviews, they found "...no suggestion that she had any malice or intended to hurt someone."

Phlebotomists are not required to be licensed by the state of California, but they do need to have a certificate signed by a physician, which the woman had, Dr. Rosenberg said.

The investigation is ongoing, Dr. Rosenberg continued. They have just completed the identification of other facilities that she has worked in since 1994. Although he was not at liberty to disclose the names of these sites, Dr. Rosenberg estimated that they will need to fully investigate between 5 and 10 other facilities in the Bay area.



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