The hepatitis C scare that arose for Mayo patients following a ‘media leak’ about an infected health care worker at the weekend is not expected to result in any public contamination, according to a medical official.
Castlebar native and specialist in public health medicine with HSE West, Dr Breda Smyth, reported to members of the HSE West forum on Tuesday that the situation was still being investigated and added it was regretful people had to learn about the case through the media. However Dr Smyth faced severe cross-examination from HSE chair Cllr Padraic Conneely and forum members who challenged how the story broke and the lack of accountable screening for health workers.
Cllr Conneely pointed out that 450 patients between Mayo, Galway, and Roscommon had to be called for blood screening and said the release of the story through the media at the weekend caused major trauma with people waiting to see would they be notified in a letter on Monday that their names were on the list to come in for screening.
Dr Smyth reported that the case came to light in June 2009 when the department was notified of a case of hepatitis C infection of a health care worker, who had worked in hospitals in Mayo, Galway, and Letterkenny between 2004 and 2008. Thorough investigation was carried out regarding all “exposure prone procedures where there was a risk that injury of the worker may expose the patients”, which did not relate to procedures such as “taking injections, taking blood, and setting up IV lines”.
Exhaustive studies of 800,000 patients in the loop resulted in 454 patients being shortlisted for precautionary blood screening for hepatitis C and this screening is currently being carried out by GPs and some hospital centres, with results generally released after 24 to 48 hours.
Cllr Padraic Connelly said the news had caused major public anxiety which was continuing and wanted to know what screening was in place for medical staff in the HSE.
Louisburgh councillor Austin Francis O’Malley said it was a sorry situation and he was concerned that all affected patients in Mayo had received their letters. What worried him was whether people who had operations prior to 2008 were going to get letters now also. “It’s shocking to think you’d have people working for you carrying such a thing as that disease and nobody knows anything about it. When that news broke the last day people were shocked. It’s a disgrace something like that can happen and I hope it will never happen again.”
Dr Smyth stated that screening of all hepatitis C was mandatory since 2008 for all new entrant staff. However she could not confirm that staff working in the HSE since prior to 2008 had all been screened as screening was voluntary and not mandatory.
Ballina councillor Seamus Weir said that while the thrust of the report was that nobody would be involved in the disease, he was very disappointed with the whole situation. “We’re dealing with people not machinery,” he said.
After being challenged again by Cllr Conneely whether the hepatitis C health care worker was now a patient, Dr Smyth said she could not make any comment except to say that there was no longer any risk of infection. “I’m unprepared to make any comment regarding the health care worker as with any patient, this is a matter of confidentiality.”
Dr Smyth concluded that the HSE was not expecting any positive tests to ensue. “The risk is extremely low, this is more a process of reassuring the public and these patients,” she said.
A HSE Infoline is available on 1850 24 1850 from 8am to 8pm on Friday May 21 and from 9.30am until 5pm on Saturday May 22.