Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP) - Thousands of veterans were at first
shocked to learn they should get blood tests for HIV and
hepatitis because three hospitals might have treated them with
unsterile equipment. Now, just a couple of months after the
Department of Veterans Affairs issued the dire warnings, veterans
are growing frustrated by the lack of information from the
tightlipped federal agency.
Nearly 11,000 former sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines could
have been exposed to infectious diseases because three VA
hospitals in the Southeast did not properly clean endoscopic
equipment between patients. On Friday, the VA revealed that
another patient had tested positive for HIV, bringing the total
to four such cases among patients who got endoscope procedures at
hospitals in Miami, Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga.
The agency also said a new hepatitis case had been discovered,
increasing the number of positive tests to 26. More than 4,270
veterans still have yet to get test results.
Beyond those skimpy facts, the VA has said little else, citing an
It hasn't answered questions from The Associated Press about why
problems with cleaning the equipment -- and possibly co-mingling
infectious body fluids -- went on for five years at the Miami and
Murfreesboro hospitals and about a year in Augusta. The VA also
refuses to say if it found similar problems at its other 150
hospitals or if more patients should get blood tests.
The VA has stressed that the positive tests are "not necessarily
linked" to medical treatment at its hospitals, and infections
don't always cause symptoms and can go undetected for years.
Still, veterans are calling on the agency to release more
"This effort must involve continual updates on what the VA is
learning about the extent of this situation," Vietnam Veterans of
America President John Rowan said in a statement Thursday.
More facts are little comfort, though, to those who are already
infected -- and those that don't know.
A 60-year-old Navy veteran who had a colonoscopy at a VA hospital
last year got an unimaginable phone call recently -- a blood test
showed he had HIV. A second test by the VA was negative, and now,
the Tennessee man doesn't know what to think.
"I screamed out loud, 'No' and went over and held my wife and
told her what happened," said the veteran, who spoke to The
Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because he was
afraid of repercussions against himself and his employer. "We had
a nice, good cry. The things that go through your mind. You think
your whole world is going to end. Her world could end, too."
It was not clear whether the Tennessee man was counted as a
positive HIV test by the VA.
The VA said the problems with the endoscopic equipment had gone
on for years, but were discovered in December when it learned the
Murfreesboro facility wasn't following cleaning procedures the
manufacturer recommended. It issued an internal alert for
hospitals to check their procedures, and the problem at Augusta
was discovered in January.
On Feb. 9, the VA announced a nationwide safety check of
endoscopic equipment used in colonoscopies and ear, nose and
throat treatments. The procedure involves a narrow, flexible tube
fitted with a fiber-optic device such as a telescope or
magnifying lens that is inserted into the body.
Some veterans were warned in February to get tested, and more
were alerted in March when the Miami hospital backtracked on its
previous conclusion that it didn't have a problem.
The day after the first HIV infection became public April 6, the
VA announced that its top medical official, Dr. Michael Kussman,
was retiring. Kussman still works at the VA but could not be
reached for comment. VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said there was
"no connection whatsoever."
The endoscopic equipment is made by Center Valley, Pa.-based
Olympus American Inc., and the company has said its recommended
cleaning procedures are clear.
The VA and its inspector general have started investigations, and
congressional members of the Veterans Affairs Committee have
asked for a hearing in late May to discuss how the VA has been
handling the problem.
U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind. and ranking member of the
committee, said in a statement he and his staff have been briefed
weekly by senior VA officials. His office declined to release
Private hospitals have also spread infectious diseases with
unsterile equipment, but requirements to report such problems
vary by state and there's no national regulation requiring
disclosure, according to Barbara Rudolph, director of The
Leapfrog Group, which advocates for quality health care.
The VA is providing a hot line for veterans and their families
and posts the information it is releasing on its Web site.
Because the VA hasn't ruled out other hospitals having had
problems, some veterans are wondering if its more widespread.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, former Marine Allen Lusk had several
colonoscopies at the VA hospital in Iowa City and tested positive
for hepatitis B in December.
"I never had it till I started going to the VA," said Lusk, 51.
He started using the VA in 2006 after he was injured when a car
fell on him and he didn't have health insurance. After seeing
news reports about the contaminated equipment problems elsewhere,
Lusk went to his county health department for an HIV test. He
"To be honest, I'd like to see them come out and be honest about
how big this really is," he said. "It might be embarrassing, but
in the long run it might be better for them."