HIV doctor put 1,700 women patients at risk

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More than 1,700 women may have been exposed to the risk of HIV infection from a junior doctor working in obstetrics and gynaecology from February 1991 until January this year.

The doctor, who worked at four hospitals in Essex, East London and Gloucestershire, discovered their HIV status in February and notified the hospitals concerned. The sex of the doctor has not been revealed.

Four health authorities - Redbridge and Waltham Forest, South Essex, Barking and Havering and Gloucestershire - trawled the records of 50,000 women patients over the past two weeks and found that 1,752 women may have been exposed during a variety of operations. Yesterday, they sent out letters by courier to all the women involved, offering them advice, counselling and HIV testing, if appropriate.

Dr Georgia Duckworth, Regional Epidemiologist for North Thames, said: "Women will be concerned to hear this news, but I do want to say to them that the risk of infection really is very small. We are contacting patients who have had what are known as 'exposure-prone procedures' such as major cynaecological operations like hyster- ectomies or Caesarian deliveries, but on the evidence of previous exercises we would not expect to find any cases of the infection having been passed on. Parents do not need to be concerned about risks to babies born in any of the hospitals.

The hospitals and periods during which the doctor was employed, are: Gloucestershire Royal, Gloucester (February 1991 to October 1993); King George, Redbridge (August 1993 to February 1995); Whipps Cross, Waltham Forest (March 1995 to February 1996 and April 1996 to January 1997) and Southend (March 1996 to October 1996). Duplication of dates is due to part-time work.

There have only been two reported incidents where HIV-infected health care workers have transmitted the virus to patients. One, the case of the Florida dentist, involved transmission to six patients, and a recent report of a French ortho- paedic surgeon involved transmission to one patient.

Around the world retrospective studies of more than 22,000 patients of HIV-infected health care workers have failed to show any evidence of transmission. There have been six retrospective exercises in the UK, involving about 4,500 patients, and none of those tested was found to be infected.

Dr Noel Gill, consultant epidemiologist at the Public Health Laboratory Servicesaid: "Although the risk is small, it is too early to stop undertaking notifications in cases like this."

A helpline for patients from the London and Essex areas has been established on 0800 146 271. Patients from Gloucestershire can ring 0800 146091. General information about HIV infection and Aids can be obtained from the National Aids Helpline on 0800 567123.