April 26, 2009

Infection Fears From Dirty Veteran’s Hospital Equipment

Several months after being told that they would need to get blood tests for HIV and hepatitis, thousands of veterans are growing increasingly frustrated as government officials refuse to share any additional information about the troubling warnings.

On Friday, officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that another veteran had tested positive for HIV after undergoing an endoscopic procedure in a government-run hospital.  According to reports, nearly 11,000 former servicemen might have been exposed to infectious diseases after it was discovered last year that several VA hospitals had not been properly cleaning endoscopic equipment between patients.  Friday's case brings the total to four veterans who have been infected with HIV after endoscopic procedures at hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Augusta, Georgia.

The veteran's agency also reported a new hepatitis infection, adding one more to the 25 already confirmed cases.  Officials fear that the number of infected soldiers could grow as some 4,270 veterans have still not been tested.

Other than these few bare numbers, the VA has shared no additional information with either the press or the former servicemen, including whether or not patients of its other 150 hospitals ought to get blood tests.

VA officials have repeatedly refused to answer questions from the press regarding how problems with unclean equipment reportedly persisted for five years at the Miami and Murfreesboro hospitals and roughly one year in Augusta.

The VA maintains that the cases are "not necessarily linked" to the treatment received at their hospitals, and that HIV and hepatitis infections can go undetected for years before a patient starts to exhibit symptoms.

Such scanty responses have left many veterans angrier than ever as they continue to demand that the agency release more information.

"This effort must involve continual updates on what the VA is learning about the extent of this situation," said John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, in a statement on Thursday.

But for those men who are already infected as well as those who are still waiting to find out, more information may not offer much comfort.

One 60-year old Tennessee veteran of the Navy shared his angst ridden story with AP reporters last week on the condition of anonymity.  After a call from the VA informed him that he had tested positive for HIV, he went for a second test which the VA then told him had turned out negative.

"I screamed out loud "ËœNo' and went over and held my wife and told her what happened," the veteran told the Associated Press. "We had a nice, good cry. The things that go through your mind.  You think your whole world is going to end.  Her world could end too."

VA officials state that reports of improper cleaning of endoscopic equipment at the Murfreesboro hospital first came to their attention in December of last year, but admitted that the problem had apparently been going on for years.  The agency then issued an internal memo that all hospitals examine their equipment cleaning procedures.  Shortly thereafter in January, the Augusta hospital reported similar problems.

In February, VA officials ordered a safety check of all endoscopic equipment in all of their hospitals nationwide.  Endoscopy involves a thin, flexible tube equipped with a tiny fiber-optic camera that is inserted into the body for procedures like colonoscopies and ear, nose and throat examinations.

Former patients of the Murfreesboro and Augusta hospitals were told in February that they would need to be tested for infection.  In March, the Miami hospital admitted to having a similar problem and began to contact its former patients as well.

The VA's top medical officer, Dr. Michael Kussman, announced his retirement the day after the first confirmed HIV case became public in early April.  VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts maintains however that there this was pure coincidence and that Dr. Kussman's retirement had "no connection whatsoever" to the infected veterans.

Members of the Veterans Affairs Committee in Congress have requested a hearing in late May to find out how the VA has been dealing with the problem.  The VA's inspector general says that a thorough investigation is already underway.

According to Barbara Rudolph of The Leapfrog Group, a company that examines and evaluates hospitals on healthcare quality standards, private hospitals also occasionally spread infectious diseases.  However, because disclosure laws differ from state to state, not all hospitals are required to report incidences.

In the meantime, the VA has set up a hotline for veterans and their families to call with their concerns.  They have also begun posting all publicly released information on agency's website.

Former Marine Allen Lusk of Cedar Rapids, Iowa says he tested positive for hepatitis B in December, though he'd never had any sign of it until he started using the VA hospital in 2006.

"To be honest," shared Lusk, "I'd like to see them come out and be honest about how big this really is.  It might be embarrassing, but in the long run it might be better for them."


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