A potential outbreak of hepatitis C because of unsafe practices at a Nevada clinic may represent "the tip of an iceberg" of safety problems at other clinics around the country, according to the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The city of Las Vegas shut down the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada last Friday after state health officials determined that six patients had contracted hepatitis C because of unsafe practices including clinic staff reusing syringes and vials.
Nevada health officials are trying to contact about 40,000 patients who received anesthesia by injection at the clinic between March 2004 and Jan. 11, 2008, to urge them to get tested for hepatitis C, hepatitis B,
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met Monday with CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding, and on a media conference call after their meeting both strongly condemned practices at the clinic.
Health care accreditors "would consider this a patient safety error that falls into the category of a never event, meaning this should never happen in contemporary health care organizations," said Gerberding.
"This is the largest number of patients that have ever been contacted for a blood exposure in a health-care setting. But unfortunately we have seen other large-scale situations where similar practices have led to patient exposures," Gerberding said.
"Our concern is that this could represent the tip of an iceberg and we need to be much more aggressive about alerting clinicians about how improper this practice is," she said, "but also continuing to invest in our ability to detect these needles in a haystack at the state level so we recognize when there has been a bad practice and patients can be alerted and tested."
Reid said he would work with Gerberding to try to get the CDC more resources in an emergency spending bill Congress is to take up in April.
State health officials said they weren't sure how many of the 40,000 potentially exposed patients they'd been able to contact since making the risk public Wednesday.
They didn't have correct addresses for 1,400 of those at risk, officials said.
"Las Vegas being the society that we have, where people are coming and going all the time, it also makes it very, very difficult when you have a group of 40,000 people to have all their addresses where you can get ahold of them," Reid said.
State Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, chairman of the Legislative Commission, called for investigations by several state agencies into the clinic practices, saying the case "may well be the largest breach of public trust" in state history.
The head of the clinic, Dr. Dipak Desai, purchased space for an open letter in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Sunday in which he expressed "my deepest sympathy to all our patients and their families for the fear and uncertainty that naturally arises from this situation."
Desai offered no apology but said a foundation was being set up to cover testing costs. He also defended practices at his clinic, which performs colonoscopies.
"The evidence does not support that syringes or needles were ever reused from patient to patient at the center," Desai wrote.
A spokeswoman, Nancy Katz, declined Monday to offer further comment.
The Clark County district attorney is investigating as are various health agencies, including the Nevada State Board of Nursing.
Several lawsuits already have been filed and a hearing is scheduled for Thursday before a Nevada legislative committee.
It may never be known how many people contracted hepatitis C because of the unsafe practices at the endoscopy center, state health officials said.
Brian Labus, head epidemiologist of the Southern Nevada Health District, said that because 4 percent of the population has hepatitis C, he expects to get numerous positive results after the at-risk clinic patients are tested and it may be impossible to determine which of those were infected at the clinic.
Of the six cases that health officials did trace to the clinic, five of them happened on the same day and genetic testing was used to make the connection, Labus said.
Hepatitis C can cause fatal liver disease as well jaundice and fatigue but 80 percent of people infected show no symptoms.
Hepatitis B is a more rare and serious disease that attacks the liver.
Meanwhile, state health officials are still looking at a second clinic with connections to the first, called Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center.
At Desert Shadow, officials had been found to reuse anesthetic vials but not syringes and so far no patients have been notified of potential risk, but that determination could still be made, said Lisa Jones, head of the Nevada State Health Division's bureau of licensure and certification.