Over a week after the Veterans Affairs Department released an email that it was investigating “the possibility of [a] relationship” between a patient’s positive HIV test and unsterilized equipment, many veterans remain ill at ease. The Miami Herald reports that since one of Miami’s VA hospital was named as one in which patients may have been accidentally infected with HIV or hepatitis, the hospital has received almost 3,000 worried calls and hundreds of visits from concerned veterans. The reaction was set off when the VA explained that improper sterilization of endoscopic equipment used in colonoscopies and other medical procedures may have resulted in a chance that veterans could contract hepatitis or HIV.
The problems date back more than five years, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but three particular clinics were specifically in question: the VA hospital in Miami, another in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and an ear, nose, and throat facility in Augusta, Georgia. Each of the clinics was using endoscopic equipment, which includes pumps and reservoirs that move water to keep a camera in the equipment clear. In a colonscopy, the endoscope is basically a flexible tube that searches the intestines for cancerous tumors or polyps. Following the medical procedures, the endoscopes were rinsed clean – but not disinfected. This may have led to tiny amounts of hepatitis virus – and possibly the virus that causes aids – being introduced into the systems of healthy veterans. Dr. Mark Larson, gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y., said the infection would be unlikely to spread unless a cut or tear inside the intestine allowed the virus to enter the bloodstream. But Dr. John Vara, the Miami VA’s chief of staff explained that there was “more than a negligible chance” that veterans become ill.
Dr. Michael J. Kussman, the VA’s undersecretary for health, was quoted in a press release saying: “the VA prides itself on being accountable, and we are extremely concerned about this matter, and as a result we have initiated an investigation…We have an obligation to provide those who have served and sacrificed for our Nation the care they deserve.” Along with the investigation, the VA issued letters to veterans offering testing for hepatitis and HIV. But many letters are being returned, and many veterans are not being reached. In fact, less than a third of veterans – 3, 174 – have even been notified of their test results. College News reports that 16 veterans have tested positive for hepatitis, with one veteran testing positive for HIV. While VA officials are cautioning veterans not to jump to conclusions, many veterans have been left in the dark to await test results or face long waits and vague answers about what to do or how to react. Even those that may not have been infected have, at the very least, suffered some emotional distress. There may be litigation on the horizon – especially if additional cases appear despite the VA’s assertion that the problems with the equipment was corrected nation-wide by March 14th. Nevertheless, a nationwide safety training for the use of the equipment may be too little, too late for some.