LAS VEGAS — Nearly 40,000 people learned this week that a trip to the doctor may have made them sick.
In a type of scandal more often associated with Third World countries, a Las Vegas endoscopy clinic was found to be reusing syringes and vials of medication for nearly four years. The shoddy practices may have led to an outbreak of the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus and exposed patients to HIV, too.
The discovery has led to the biggest public health notification operation in U.S. history and brought demands for investigations. Thousands of patients are being urged to be tested for the viruses. Six acute cases of hepatitis C have been confirmed. The surgical center and five affiliated clinics have been closed.
"I find it baffling, frankly, that in this day and age anyone would think it was safe to reuse a syringe," said Michael Bell, associate director for infection control at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retired airplane mechanic Michael Washington, 67, was the first to report his infection. He had a routine colon exam in July at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. In September, he started to get sick. He was losing weight, his urine turned dark and his stomach hurt. By January, it was clear what had happened.
In letters that began arriving this week, patients who received injected anesthesia at the endoscopy center from March 2004 to mid January were urged to get tested for hepatitis B and C, and HIV. Because all three viruses are transmitted by blood, they could have been passed from one patient to the next by the unsafe practices at the clinic.
Health officials say they are most worried about the spread of hepatitis C, which targets the liver but shows no symptoms in as many as 80 percent of infections.
Health inspectors say they observed clinic staff using the same syringe twice. The practice allows contaminated blood in a used syringe to infect the next patient.