BRANDON — A hepatitis C outbreak at a holistic medical clinic in Brandon was likely caused by the reuse of syringes on patients undergoing intravenous therapies, a state health official said Friday.
Eight patients of Wellness Works, at 1209 Lakeside Drive, tested positive last year for hepatitis C, a contagious liver disease that can last from a few weeks to a lifetime and can cause serious damage.
Roger Sanderson, a regional epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, said one of the eight patients likely had the disease before coming to the clinic. "That is a likely scenario, but we can't prove it," he said.
Dr. Carol Roberts, director of the clinic, said the eight patients were undergoing chelation therapy to remove what she described as toxic metals from their bodies.
Chelation, which uses IV medications to grab heavy metals and minerals out of the blood and remove them from the body, is approved by the FDA only for lead poisoning and heavy-metal toxicity. The use of it by some practitioners for conditions like autism and heart disease has drawn controversy to the practice.
Roberts says the clinic never reused syringes, and that the outbreak was caused by a nurse who probably contaminated vials of saline used during therapies. The registered nurse, who Roberts would not name, was fired in December after working at the clinic for about a year.
"That's sloppy," Roberts said. "It was a one-time thing."
But Sanderson said the state, in talking to staff and patients at the clinic, found inappropriate use of syringes by the nurse.
He said the state recommended, and the clinic implemented, corrective actions since its investigation began last July. That included hiring new staff, ensuring that syringes do not get reused, switching from multi-dose to single-dose vials and creating a separate area to prepare medications.
Roberts said four or five of the infected patients are still visiting the clinic and seem to be doing well. The others are no longer patients at the clinic, and Roberts said she doesn't know how they're doing.
Wellness Works contacted the local health department in July, after a couple of patients were found to have hepatitis symptoms, Roberts said. Testing confirmed they had hepatitis C.
The state's investigation involved reviewing the clinic's infection control procedures and having the clinic identify and contact other patients who might be at risk. Roberts said the clinic tested 175 patients who had received IV treatments from the nurse during her year of employment. Eight people in all were positive for hepatitis C. All clinic employees tested negative, she added.
Roberts said the nurse wasn't fired until December, when they determined what happened.
"It was a bad day, a very unfortunate incident, and we are definitely taking the consequences," Roberts said.
The state health department took the added step last month of sending a letter to all of the clinic's current and former patients, which provided information about hepatitis C. It noted that most infected people have no symptoms at first, but that many go on to develop chronic liver disease, which can range from mild to severe. It added that the virus can be spread in health care settings when injection equipment, such as syringes, is shared between patients or when injectable medications or IV solutions are mishandled and become contaminated with blood.
The letter also addressed the investigation.
"The health department has concluded that transmission of hepatitis C did take place in the Brandon Wellness Works clinic due to a failure to follow standard procedures when preparing and administering intravenous therapy," the letter stated.
The letter strongly encouraged anyone who received IV therapy at the clinic and has not yet been tested to get tested as soon as possible.
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330.