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The VA Under Fire for Contaminated Endoscopy Equipment

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Miami, FLIt's a medical malpractice case in the making, after it was revealed that as many as 10 veterans have tested positive for infectious liver disease allegedly caused by contaminated colonoscopy equipment. What's more, an email sent to the Associated Press (AP) by the Veterans Affairs Department (the VA) on March 19th revealed that tubing attached to the endoscopic equipment was cleaned at the end of each day, rather than immediately after each patient—a violation of the manufacturer's instructions.

EndoscopeThousands of veterans may have been put at risk for Hepatitis B and C.

The VA is said to have sent letters offering to test about 6,400 patients who had colonoscopies performed between April 23, 2003 and Dec. 1, 2008, at a VA facility in Murfreesboro, Tennessee together with about 1,800 patients treated over 11 months last year at Augusta, Georgia.

It has since sent letters advising 3,260 patients who had colonoscopies between May 2004 and March 12th of this year at the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System to be tested for HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

Some veterans wonder why it has taken five years for the information to come to light.

There are three VA facilities that have come under fire for inadequate sterilization of endoscopy equipment: Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Miami, Florida; and Augusta, Georgia. Of the 10 veterans who have tested positive for infectious disease, four patients from Tennessee have tested positive for hepatitis B, and 6 have tested positive for hepatitis C. The latter can be fatal.

There is also the risk of exposure to AIDS, and other infectious diseases when heretofore disease-free patients are exposed to the body fluids of others. It's been reported that an employee in the office of US Representative Zach Wamp from Chattanooga revealed that blood test notices sent to colonoscopy patients of the Murfreesboro clinic were timed to the date of a procedure performed on a patient with AIDS. While the statement has since been denied by Wamp's office, veterans are concerned nonetheless.

In another disturbing revelation, the president of the Society of Health Care Epidemiology of America says that hospitals are not required to report mistakes that expose patients to infectious diseases. Dr. Mark Rupp, who is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, maintains, "The people in the hospitals are encouraged to report," he said. "If there is any kind of outbreak usually the Public Health Service is notified."

Dr. Rupp also said that the risk of infection following routine endoscopic procedures is 1 in every 1 million to 2 million procedures.

However, it should be noted that a routine procedure would assume proper cleaning, and sterilization of endoscopic equipment after each patient, according to manufacturer's instructions and medical protocol based simply on common sense. The fact that there have been 10 positive tests, so far, from just under 10,000 total patient alerts suggests a dramatic departure from Dr. Rupp's statistical benchmark.

One veteran who tested negative for infectious disease told the Associated Press that he was still worried, given the statement allegedly made to him by a nurse that sometimes disease doesn't onset for as many as seven years after exposure to contamination.

Some veterans are just plain angry. Wayne Craig is a 52-year-old US Navy vet who underwent a colonoscopy at the Alvin C. York Medical Center in Murfreesboro about 5 years ago.

"What if you had to worry about giving your wife AIDS?" the Elora resident told AP. "Why haven't I been notified within five years?

"What if this was a public hospital?" continued Craig, grandfather of six. "There's no reason in the world a veteran can't file a suit against a veteran hospital the same as a public hospital. This is veterans you are talking about."

Currently there are about 15 medical malpractice lawsuits in the works. There likely will be more…

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