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NH AG investigates hepatitis C cases; suit filed

By Holly Ramer
Associated Press / June 14, 2012
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CONCORD, N.H.—The probe into a hepatitis C outbreak at Exeter Hospital's cardiac catheterization lab reached the courts Thursday, with the attorney general's office announcing a criminal investigation and a civil lawsuit being filed on behalf of one of the infected patients.

Twenty people, including a hospital worker, have been diagnosed with the same strain of the liver-destroying virus since state public health officials began investigating last month. On Wednesday, public health director Dr. Jose Montero said evidence so far points to drug diversion as the likely cause, which generally involves someone using a syringe to inject medication meant for someone else and then re-using the syringe on patients.

Attorney General Michael Delaney said his office is working with police to determine if any crimes occurred. Meanwhile, a Concord law firm filed a class- action lawsuit in Rockingham County Superior Court accusing the hospital of negligence. The case was brought on behalf of a 49-year-old man, referred to only as "Joe Doe," who was treated for heart problems at the hospital in August and was notified this week that he tested positive for hepatitis C, a viral infection transmitted by blood that causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to chronic health issues.

"He thinks he's getting better from heart surgery, then he hears, `Hey, you might have a terminal illness,'" attorney Peter McGrath said. "My client's wish is that this doesn't happen to anybody else."

Since then, the man has suffered bouts of sleeplessness, high stress, and pain and suffering, according to the lawsuit. The suit alleges that the hospital failed to properly administer safe intravenous treatment, monitor safe blood samples and oversee the security and control of its laboratory and cardiac units.

"Negligent supervision is really what it is, not keeping eye on things," McGrath said.

In an interview with WMUR-TV, the hospital's president and CEO apologized to the infected patients.

"If it is determined that we're responsible for this outbreak, we will be responsible for that cost," Kevin Callahan said.

Hospital officials declined to comment Thursday on the lawsuit, which must be certified as a class-action by a judge and make it through a special screening panel that evaluates all malpractice cases in the state in order to proceed.

Officials initially asked anyone treated at the lab since August to get tested; on Wednesday, Montero said that request has been expanded to include all of the lab's patients since October 2010.

State and local health departments aren't required to report such outbreaks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the agency was notified of 13 outbreaks nationwide between 2008 and 2011. Of those, seven occurred in outpatient facilities, and most were traced to unsafe injection practices.

At least two have resulted in criminal charges, including a Colorado woman who was convicted of stealing syringes filled with painkillers from two hospitals where she worked and replacing them with used syringes. The syringes were later used on surgical patients, and up to three dozen were found to have hepatitis C after being exposed.

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