Counselling offered after hepatitis alert

A HOSPITAL switchboard was inundated with calls yesterday from almost 400 women who are worried that they have caught hepatitis B from a surgeon.

Telephone calls to the Stafford District General Hospital began late on Sunday evening when it was disclosed that a woman and the gynaecologist who delivered her baby by Caesarean section had the virus which causes serious liver disease. Many of the women were distressed and were counselled over the telephone.

It is the first time that the viral transmission from doctor to patient during a birth has been suspected.

Joe Jordan, a consultant gynaecologist and spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said the virus would only be passed if the surgeon's blood came into contact with that of the patient. Transmission was most likely if the surgeon accidentally pricked or jabbed himself when repairing the womb after the Caesarean.

The college has no policy on hepatitis B vaccination for its members but 'strongly recommends' that they have the injection, he added.

It has not been proved conclusively that the surgeon is responsible for transmitting the infection but there is a 'high probability' that he is involved, a hospital spokeswoman said. 'It may never actually be confirmed that he is to blame but we will know more in three weeks' time when we have the results of tests.' Since the woman underwent the emergency delivery last September, it was difficult to establish exactly what occurred in the operating theatre.

About 1,000 women who underwent gynaecological procedures carried out by the surgeon since February 1991 are being offered hepatitis B tests. Local GPs are being asked to help.

The hospital spokeswoman said: 'As a precautionary measure, we are getting in touch with all women who have been in contact with the particular member of staff and who may be at risk. The likelihood of infection is minimal and there is no cause for concern and the action we have undertaken is purely precautionary.'

Neither the patient, a 26-year- old woman, nor the surgeon have been named.