NH News
5:36 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

Questions Remain Following Hepatitis C Outbreak

After a lifetime of health challenges, the last thing Katrina wanted to hear was that she’d contracted Hepatitis C. 

“I was devastated,” says the 41-year old, whose last name is being withheld at her request.

She also suffers from diabetes and kidney failure, and believes she got Hep C about five years ago, possibly from sharing razors with a female roommate.

Because Hep C can live in the body for decades without producing symptoms, it’s sometimes called the silent killer.

“It certainly hasn’t given me too many problems, but I’m not naive enough to know that it is not going to get better,” she says.

Katrina is one of 17,000 Granite Staters living with the virus. It’s a disease with a stigma…an I-V drug user thing. A jailhouse tattoo disease.

It’s usually spread by blood, and over time can devastate a carrier’s liver.

At least 19 patients in the Exeter Hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab are suspected of contracting it while undergoing medical procedures.

Officials aren’t commenting on specifics, but sources say the likely cause of the infections is drug diversion by a low-level hospital employee.

“Basically what drug diversion means is you take a medication that was prescribed for somebody else, and use it for yourself,” explains Jose Montero, the State’s Director of Public Health.

His office, along with the Attorney General, are looking into whether an employee mishandled pain narcotics and needles, resulting in the infections.

If so, this would be the third high profile Hep C outbreak linked to drug diversion in the country in the past few years.

But Joseph Perz, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control, says it’s still relatively rare.

“The number of outbreaks where patients have acquired hepatitis C is still fairly low,” says Dr. Perz. “In the last 20 years, not counting the New Hampshire incident, we are aware of five examples.”

One of those cases was in Colorado in 2009, when two dozen patients contracted Hep C. The surgical technician responsible for the outbreak was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Hospitals in New Hampshire are not required to drug test employees, and staff at the Cardiac Cath lab are not tested.

“It is inconceivable to me that they were not drug testing, even though it is not a mandatory thing,” says Mark Abramson, a medical malpractice attorney in Manchester who is representing seven of the patients in a recently filed civil suit.

“They drug test you to line the shelves of Walmart. They don’t drug test you at the Exeter Hospital, when you are dealing with needles and drugs that are typically abused? I just can’t understand why they wouldn’t do that. Was there no oversight?”

Exeter Hospital declined to comment for this story. In a written statement, officials said, “The hospital follows all national standards for preventing the spread of infectious disease.”

Montero says his office will likely look into the issue of hospital employee drug testing after his investigation is complete. They will also look at how the State tracks Hepatitis C infections. Currently, New Hampshire is the only state that doesn’t mandate reporting of new cases by physicians. The State keeps records of more than 50 other diseases, including meningitis, rabies and STD’s.

A database could have helped the state move more quickly after the Exeter outbreak, but Montero says that the nature of Hepatitis C makes accurate record keeping impossible.

“Sometimes people think that by having a disease reportable, you solve all of the issues,” says Dr. Montero. “Hepatitis C is not the poster child for that.”

Montero says the State will weigh the costs of a database versus its health benefits in light of the recent outbreak.

For the 19 newly infected patients, they want more than a database: they want answers as to how this could have happened.