Scare brings back memories


Jill Watson and Evelyn McKnight can relate to the anxiety of thousands of Southern Nevadans wondering if they have been infected with hepatitis, or even HIV.

They were among 600 Nebraskan cancer treatment patients who went through the same ordeal five years ago. One in six of the patients, including Watson and McKnight, tested positive for hepatitis, caused by improperly sterilized syringes.

News of a similar scare in Las Vegas has brought back memories of what they went through.

"It brings tears to my eyes, honestly," Watson said. "When you're sick, you trust the person who's treating you. This kind of betrayal is something you live with for a long time."

Local health officials have notified 40,000 Las Vegans of possible exposure to hepatitis C at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, where the center's staff reused syringes to administer medications.

McKnight said Las Vegans can learn from the experiences of her community, even if some health care professionals apparently haven't.

The situation in Nebraska started in late 2002 when Mc-Knight's physician husband and another doctor noticed that several of their hepatitis patients had been treated at the same cancer clinic in Fremont, Neb.

Fremont, a town of 24,000, is located about 40 miles southeast of Omaha.

Nebraska health officials ultimately found that 99 of the clinic's patients from March 2000 to December 2001 had contracted hepatitis C.

It was the largest outbreak to date of the illness in North America, but the alert in Southern Nevada has the potential to dwarf that number.

Nebraska's state epidemiologist Tom Safranek doesn't envy Southern Nevada health officials who are dealing with the potential outbreak.

"They're going to be tremendously stressed to find the scope of this problem," Safranek said. "It's a very resource-intensive process simply to identify the number of individuals affected, to find when it started, when it stopped, who has it, and to get those people referred to medical care."

Dr. Tahir Javed, director of the Fremont cancer center, returned to his native Pakistan soon after the revelation that many of his patients were ailing.

About a year after the outbreak, the state of Nebraska revoked his medical license. Javed is now a health minister in the eastern Pakistani province of Punjab.

A nurse at his clinic, who reused syringes while removing blood from intravenous tubes, also had her license revoked.

Prosecutors brought no criminal charges in the matter, but Watson, McKnight, and 87 other patients sued the cancer center. All settled their claims for undisclosed sums.

If the situation here plays out the way it did in Nebraska, it could be a long road toward healing, said Watson and McKnight, both breast cancer survivors.

McKnight has used her settlement money to launch a foundation to bring attention to the issue of substandard medical care at some facilities. The group is called Hepatitis Outbreaks' National Organization for Reform, or HONOReform.

"We want to try to make sure what happened to us doesn't happen again in the United States," McKnight said.

But it has happened again recently. And not only in Las Vegas.

Dr. Harvey Finkelstein, a New York physician, last year infected at least one patient with hepatitis by reusing a syringe, health officials in that state said.

A Michigan dermatologist, Dr. Robert Stokes, was accused of similar misdeeds. Stokes was convicted in federal court on 31 counts of health care fraud unrelated to unsanitary medical practices. In December, he was sentenced to 101/2 years in federal prison.

Back in Fremont, Watson tries to stay calm when she hears about other instances of syringe reuse.

Five years on, she's still busy coping with what happened to her.

"With hepatitis, they like to use the word cured, but it's still in my blood," said Watson, a mother of four. "I still can't donate blood and my health insurance rates keep rising."

Contact reporter Alan Maimon at amaimon@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0404.

 

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