N.H. Hospital Facing Legal Action Over Hepatitis C Outbreak

PHOTO: Dr. Jose Montero

New Hampshire's Exeter Hospital faces dozens of lawsuits over an outbreak of hepatitis C that has been linked to its cardiac catheterization lab.

The New Hampshire Department of Health announced Monday that, so far, 27 people had contracted the disease while in the cardiac catheterization lab. Of the 27 cases, one was a hospital employee. An additional 12 people tested positive for the hepatitis C virus but had a strain different from the one tied to the outbreak.

Foster's Daily Democrat reported that 59 patients had filed suit against the hospital -- 47 in a class action and another 12 individually.

Cases were first reported in May, and in June, state health officials said the outbreak was most likely the result of drug diversion by a hospital employee. Drug diversion, the misuse of prescription drugs for nonmedicinal purposes, has become a major problem among health care workers, who may use narcotics prescribed for patients and then pass on diseases through contaminated syringes. State officials are still investigating whether the employee was the source of the outbreak.

Hepatitis C is a disease that causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to chronic infection.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 13 health care-associated hepatitis C outbreaks between 2008 and 2011. More than 100 people were infected during those outbreaks. Two of the outbreaks -- one in 2009 in Colorado and another in 2010 in Florida -- involved drug diversion by health care staff.

The hospital said in a news release that it had contacted patients who were treated in the cardiac catheterization lab or the recovery room between Oct. 1, 2010, and May 25, 2012, urging them to get tested for hepatitis C.

The health department said testing on individuals who may have been exposed to the virus is almost complete.

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