- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Veterans Affairs Department is investigating whether its failure to sanitize hospital colonoscopy equipment is responsible for infecting one veteran with the virus that causes AIDS and 16 others with hepatitis.

More than 10,000 veterans were urged in letters last month to seek out free testing to determine whether they were infected by equipment that was not serviced or sterilized according to the manufacturer's guidelines.

In a statement released late Friday, the VA revealed that the first batch of test results showed that one veteran tested positive for HIV.

“These results do not indicate that there is any relationship between these patients' conditions and the endoscopy procedures they underwent,” the VA said. “However, VA is conducting an epidemiologic investigation to look into the possibility of such a relationship.”

The VA said three hospitals failed to properly sterilize their colonoscopy equipment at various times since 2003: the VA hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn., from April 2003 to December 2008; the facility in Augusta, Ga., from January 2008 to November 2008; and the department's Miami hospital from May 2004 through March 2009.

Of the 3,174 test results received so far, at least 16 veterans have tested positive for hepatitis B and hepatitis C, although it is not known whether the VA facilities and their sanitary failures are at fault.

Of the combined 17 positive tests for hepatitis and HIV, 11 were from the Tennessee hospital and six from Georgia.

According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of new HIV infections in 2006, the general infection rate was 22.8 per 100,000 population that year, a figure that would produce slightly fewer than 0.7 cases in a random group of 3,000 people.

“While reviews indicate that the transmission of hepatitis B and hepatitis C virus as a result of endoscopy procedures is extremely small and that transmission of HIV through endoscopy has never been reported, VA will appropriately counsel and care for these patients, no matter what the source of the infections may be,” the VA said.

Attempts by The Washington Times to reach VA for comment Monday resulted in referrals back to Friday's statement.

When asked by e-mail whether “it was possible to determine” whether a given infection resulted from tainted VA equipment, spokeswoman Katie Roberts said. “There is no way to conclusively tell.” She declined to answer whether the government could be held liable or whether the VA inspector general, specifically, was investigating.

The viruses that cause AIDS, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are spread by contact with infected body fluids, particularly blood. Hepatitis B and C are liver diseases that can lead to cirrhosis or cancer in that organ. Of the three, vaccines exist only for hepatitis B, and all of the viruses can be fatal.

Not all veterans have received notice to undergo testing, because some letters were returned as undeliverable, but the VA says it is working to locate those as well as homeless veterans.

“The VA prides itself on being accountable, and we are extremely concerned about this matter and as a result we have initiated an investigation,” said Michael J. Kussman, VA undersecretary for health. “Additionally, we are making sure to take corrective measures to ensure veterans have the information and the care necessary to deal with this unacceptable development.”

Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, Florida Democrat, has asked the department's inspector general to investigate the widespread contamination problems, but VA officials declined to respond whether such an inquiry is ongoing.

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