Patients Tested for HIV After Discovery of Syringe Reuse In Alta

November 4, 2010

Earlier this year, 173 endoscopy patients treated at a health center in Hinton, Alta, may have been exposed to deadly infections due to reuse of syringes. Health officials are contacting these patients to have them tested for Hepatitis B and C, and HIV.

According to Alberta Health Services, the contamination may have occurred when single-use syringes used to draw medication were inserted into multiple-dose vials more than once for the same patient.

The syringe was not used to puncture patients directly, but infused the medication into an intravenous line. This presents the possibility that a slight amount of blood could backflow into the syringe, according to AHS. Needles were replaced; however one syringe was used several times to re-administer medication. Although patients did not experience skin punctures directly, needle safety guidelines were not followed to protect them, or employees.

“Although the risk is extremely low, this practice has the potential to spread infection to other patients receiving medication from the same multi-dose vial,” Dr. Kathryn Koliaska, the medical officer of health for the Alberta Health Services north zone, has mentioned.

“We have stopped the practice in Hinton, and we are taking steps to prevent this from happening again.”

However, this wasn't the first time this has happened and needle reuse deaths and unnecessary repeated punctures of the skin with one needle need to be prevented now. Waiting for an event like this to occur before taking action could have irreparable consequences.

In October 2008, The High Prairie Health Center was found to be reusing single-use syringes for several years. Vermillion and Lloydminister were also found to have reused syringes and endangering patients' lives, shortly afterward. According to Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, there are standards in place that make it clear the protocols and procedures that need to be followed to ensure needle safety, which includes not reusing syringes or using the same needle more than once to puncture the skin.

Due to the events that have taken place regarding syringe reuse, The Health Quality Council of Alberta is launching an investigation. The Health Quality Council blames the unsafe syringe reuse at High Prairie on outdated practices and isolation.

There have been complaints against Zwozdesky by Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason, stating that the government should have corrected the issue the first time there was an occurrence of needle reuse.

While needle reuse deaths and needle safety are a worldwide issue, Alberta Health Services still holds that potential for transmission is “extremely” low. The Hinton Health Center needle safety issues occurred between March 1 and September 15 of this year, was believed to be performed by one employee, and was put to an end when another employee witnessed and reported the situation. Had the situation not been reported, many other patients may have had punctures to their skin by infected needles or syringes.

One hundred sixteen of the 149 contacted patients have been tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C. Hopefully results will indicate that the future for these patients does not include needle reuse deaths from dangerous skin punctures. To prevent a needle safety issue like this from occurring again, or others regarding infections spread from skin punctures, AHS plans to launch a staff education initiative this month regarding policy and best practices for using syringes.

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