May 12, 2009
The Veterans Affairs chief patient safety officer said Friday that it is unlikely former patients will "ever know" whether they were infected with HIV or hepatitis due to improperly sanitized endoscopy equipment. Dr. Jim Bagian said the patients who underwent colonoscopies or ear, nose and throat procedures at VA facilities will not be able to show they were infected by or even exposed to tainted equipment.
It was discovered in December that the endoscopic equipment was either not properly cleaned or set up. In February, the VA began notifying more than 11,000 patients at its centers in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga., to get tested for blood-borne infections. Since then, five patients have tested positive for HIV and 33 for hepatitis. The tests are continuing.
Although the patients recently tested positive, they could have been infected for years without showing symptoms, said a spokesperson with the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. "I don't believe there is going to be any way to definitively link their HIV-positive status to the facility," said Dr. David A. Greenwald of the Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
Following the December discovery, the VA embarked on a nationwide safety "step-up" at all of its 153 medical centers. Staff at all agency hospitals have been trained, and the VA has discussed the problems with representatives of the endoscopy equipment manufacturer.
Bagian said taking care of the infected patients is primary. "We look at these as our patients," he said. "We are not going to quibble about 'Was it caused because you are an IV drug user?' Suppose it was drug use. We are still going to treat them anyway."