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Headlines about unsanitary hospital practices causing disease outbreaks in places like China, Bulgaria, and even Ireland cause most of us to shake our heads and turn the page.

After all, American hospitals in the 21st Century couldn’t possibly transmit fatal diseases by reusing syringes or equipment. Right?

Think again.

Hospitals and clinics in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Jersey, and Texas are just some of the health-care settings in which hundreds of patients have contracted Hepatitis C because workers failed to take proper precautions or outright violated safety protocols.

And now a health clinic in New Hanover county has followed this deadly trend. The New Hanover Community Health Center recently announced that it had sent letters to almost 300 patients who may have been exposed to blood borne illnesses, which can include hepatitis and HIV, due to a machine malfunction. The center recently discovered that a glucose meter used to monitor blood sugar levels in diabetic patients may have malfunctioned so that more than one patient was pricked with the same needle. The patients that were sent warning letters were patients who had been seen since January of this year when this new machine started to be used. It took 6 months for someone to notice that the needles in the meter were not rotating properly? Was this user error instead of a machine malfunction? The patients are being asked to come in for free blood tests. Fortunately, those patients that have been tested to date have tested negatively, but this story is a perfect example of why proper training and proper maintenance of equipment is vitally important.

Not counting hospital outbreaks, the CDC reported earlier this year that 33 outbreaks of hepatitis B and C in settings such as nursing homes and outpatient clinics over the last 10 years put an estimated 60,000 people at risk of bloodborn infections. In those cases, 173 people were diagnosed with hepatitis B and 275 were diagnosed with hepatitis C.

Hepatitis is a virus that comes in six varieties: A, B, C, D, E and G. All of them attack the liver, but hepatitis C is usually considered the most serious. Hepatitis C can be fatal. It can cause liver cancer, liver failure, or cirrhosis. It is usually transmitted by infected blood, often through shared or reused needles.

How can something so dangerous yet so preventable happen in modern American health care facilities?

In little Laurinburg, N.C., last year a technician infected seven patients with Hepatitis C during cardiac stress tests conducted at an outpatient clinic. The tests involve injecting a dye into a patient’s vein.

Nearly 100 patients at a cancer clinic inside a Nebraska hospital were infected with hepatitis C from 2000 through 2001 because the clinic reused syringes. In Las Vegas last year, two endoscopy clinics spread the virus to 114 patients by reusing syringes and medicine vials.

In Texas, a nurse at a military hospital injected himself with a patient’s drugs and then injected the patient with the same needle, giving him hepatitis C. In Atlantic City this year, 15 people were infected after starting dialysis at an Atlantic City hospital.

In Colorado, 5,700 patients may have been exposed during surgeries at the Rose and Audubon Surgery Center in Colorado Springs by a technician accused of using their syringes full of painkillers and then refilling them with saline for use on the patients. In that instance, the hospital and the technician may have known the technician needed testing to determine if she was positive for the virus after signs turned up in a pre-employment exam.

These events not only threaten the lives of the patients that health care facilities are supposed to treat; they cast a cloud of fear over thousands of patients notified that they may have been exposed to a dread disease.

It would be easy to blame the technicians performing the seemingly mundane tasks that often result in hepatitis C transmission. But taking blood, injecting dyes, and administering pain medication are medical procedures. Doctors, hospitals and nursing homes should be held responsible for their safe performance.

*Thanks to Cory Reiss, summer law clerk and 3L at Wake Forest University School of Law, who was the major contributor to this blog post*

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