EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

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July 15, 2012

Local hospitals react to Exeter's Hepatitis C outbreak

New Hampshire health officials suspect an outbreak of Hepatitis C at Exeter Hospital was caused by an employee who stole and injected hospital drugs and used contaminated needles on patients in the hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab and recovery room.

So far 30 patients have tested positive for the same strain Hepatitis C — a blood-borne viral infection that causes liver damage and potentially chronic health problems.

Many local hospitals said the outbreak at Exeter unfairly casts their profession in a negative light, said Cristina Galli, spokeswoman for Parkland Medical Center in Derry, N.H.

“This is a really isolated and rare incident,” said Galli. “We’re extremely cautious when it comes to patient safety.”

But several officials interviewed last week admit what occurred at Exeter Hospital could happen anywhere, given that it appears the outbreak was caused by an individual employee.

“I do think this is something that could happen in most hospitals,” said Delia O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. “Unfortunately, there are stories like this around the country. ... Nothing is a sure thing when it comes - apparently — to addiction and the behaviors it stimulates.”

The Exeter outbreak is reportedly being investigated by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office and U.S. Attorney’s office.

First reported in June, the hospital had found four patients with the virus. The number climbed to 30 last week with 45 more patients to be tested.

With strict protocols in place for storing and administering medicine and sanitizing medical instruments and equipment, area hospital officials said their patients’ safety is already a priority.

“There are intensive procedures for infection control,” said Galli at Parkland. “We haven’t made any changes because we feel what we have in place is adequate.”

All 1,000 employees at Anna Jaques Hospital must pass a drug test before they are hired. But after the Exeter outbreak, O’Connor said the hospital board is considering continued employee drug testing.

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