Surgeons' virus sparks check of 4,500 patients

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Two surgeons who have contracted the hepatitis C virus have sparked a national alert involving 4,500 former patients.

Two surgeons who have contracted the hepatitis C virus have sparked a national alert involving 4,500 former patients.

Patients treated by the surgeons over the past 22 years have been contacted, as they may have the infection.

Between them, the surgeons - believed to be an obstetrician and a surgeon - practised in 16 hospitals around the country.

The Department of Health alert was triggered when the two workers were separately found to be infected with hepatitis C, which can cause liver disease and death.

One of the hospitals involved, the Princess Grace in London, is a leading private hospital where Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had both hips replaced.

Health department officials said details of the patients at risk were confidential. Six have so far been found to be infected, but four have cleared the virus from their bodies. The remaining two are having treatment, but neither are in hospital.

Hepatitis C is transmitted by blood to blood contact and, rarely, by sexual contact. It often has no symptoms, but about 15 per cent of those infected develop chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis of the liver over 20 to 30 years. Between 2 to 3 per cent develop liver cancer and die.

One of the workers is believed to be a surgeon who worked at three London hospitals: the Central Middlesex NHS Trust, the Princess Grace and the private Clementine Churchill in Harrow.

Two of the surgeon's patients were found to be infected with the virus last year, triggering a review of records at the three hospitals. As a result, 2000 patients treated between 1994 and the end of 1999 were being notified yesterday.

The second surgeon is an obstetrician, who was first identified as having the hepatitis C virus while working at the Pilgrim hospital, Boston, Lincolnshire, last year.

After diagnosis, checks of 1,400 women were carried out in October after one of the obstetrician's patients was found to be infected. These checks, which went back to 1993, revealed three more patients were infected in the early part of the 1990s.

On the basis of the findings, health officials decided to extend the review of the obstetrician's patients back 22 years to 1978. A further 2,500 women were notified yesterday.

A confidential telephone line has been set up for the patients of both surgeons. They will be offered blood tests and specialist care for those found to be infected.

Dr Pat Troop, deputy chief medical officer, said it was "very unusual" for patients to become infected during surgical procedures.

Professor Howard Thomas, chairman of the Advisory Group on Hepatitis, said the system for checking on hepatitis infection in health care workers was being reviewed in light of the incidents.

All doctors are screened for hepatitis B and offered vaccination if they are not immune, but there is no vaccination for hepatitis C.

Doctors found to be carrying hepatitis B are excluded from performing surgical procedures if they have high levels of the virus.

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