Syringe safety campaign started

CHICAGO -- Patients who got hepatitis from contaminated syringes and medicine vials are joining infection control advocates to warn Americans about a problem they say is more common than people think.

A recent federal report suggests they are right.

It found more than 60,000 people were exposed to hepatitis, and at least 400 people were infected with it in 33 outbreaks linked with blatant safety violations. The report covered the period from 1998 to 2008.

Many involved reuse of syringes: Health workers probably thought they were being safe by discarding the syringes' used needles and snapping on sterile ones. They were apparently unaware that the plastic barrel part of a syringe can become contaminated, too. Reusing it even with a fresh needle also can contaminate the medicine vial.

Army officials announced Thursday they are investigating evidence that a similar unsanitary practice. Reuse of insulin-injecting devices might have occurred at a Texas Army hospital. More than 2,100 diabetic patients treated at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso might be at risk for hepatitis or HIV, although no cases have been confirmed.

Authorities believe many infections from such incidents go unreported. The most publicized cases in recent years occurred in Las Vegas, Nebraska and New York; one of the most recent outbreaks was in Illinois. In Las Vegas, nine hepatitis cases were directly linked to reuse of syringes and vials at two now-closed clinics. Another 105 cases were considered possibly linked to the clinics' practices.

But they have happened in other states and in hospitals, too. The federal report published last month says the cases it highlights "probably represent a much wider problem."

Some hygiene lapses among medical workers have received more attention, including inadequate hand-washing. But researcher Joseph Perz of the Centers for Disease and Prevention said that syringe reuse "is something that's obviously wrong."

"It really represents a breakdown in very basic patient safety. There really is a sense of outrage among many providers and others working in this area when they hear about some of these outbreaks and some of the practices," Perz said. He co-authored the report, which appeared in the Jan. 6 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Perz blamed the problem on ignorance and lack of oversight.

According to the CDC, sometimes doctors or nurses injected several patients from single-use medicine vials to "cut corners," Perz said, or to save money.

The CDC is working with patient advocates to raise awareness about the problem and Perz is among those speaking at a Washington, D.C., conference next week. The coalition includes infection control specialists and nurse anesthetists.

The campaign is designed to alert doctors, nurses and other medical workers that syringes must only be used once.

Patients should be watchful, too, asking about safety precautions and speaking up if they see or suspect a violation.

The campaign will include a Web site and written training materials, and is to kick off later this month in Nevada.