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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

 

    

The New Epidemic? Hepatitis C

(New York-WABC, February 11, 2001) _ Tonight we look at a disturbing question: did a hospital mistake put a nurse and her patients at risk? Chief investigative correspondent Sarah Wallace joins us with a disturbing case that is focusing new attention on a dangerous disease that may be the new epidemic.

We're talking about hepatitis C. By conservative estimates, about four million Americans are infected with the disease, far more than HIV, and yet little is known about it. And here's what's really frightening: Hepatitis C now kills about 10,000 people a year. That number is expected to quadruple over the next ten years. We uncovered a lawsuit brought by an emergency room nurse who worries she might become one of those statistics. Tonight, we examine what went wrong and why we need to know about the disease some predict will be the new epidemic.

These days, it's a struggle for Denise Glover to climb the stairs of her Brooklyn brownstone.

Denise Glover, Former Nurse: "It's like I have the flu every day."

Denise is now too sick to work, and the terrible irony is that she was a career nurse.

Glover: "Now I am on the other side and it is the most frightening thing in the world because for me my health was my only ticket to my independence."

Denise is infected with hepatitis C, the most serious form of hepatitis. It's a potentially fatal virus which is spread by contact with infected blood. Like many health professionals, Denise suspects she became infected through a needle stick. She's not sure when, but what is fact is this: for eight years beginning in 1989, Denise worked in the emergency room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. We've uncovered evidence that for at least three of those years, there was evidence on file at this hospital that Denise was infected with hepatitis C, but she was never told- apparently a mistake. As a result, she potentially exposed patients, colleagues, and even her family to the disease.

    

Dr. Douglas Dieterich is a hepatitis C specialist.

Dr. Douglas Dieterich, Cabrini Medical Center: "Tiny little blood that will get into someone else's blood is enough to give it to you. So much, as a for instance, the blood on a straw that people using cocaine, they can pass hepatitis C that way, or sharing a razor or a toothbrush."

Denise had been tested back in 1994 after possible exposure to AIDS from an emergency room patient. The response:

Denise: "You're fine, go back to duty."

There's no state law that prohibits infected health professionals from continuing to work with patients. But it's recommended they be closely monitored. Since no one told Denise of her illness, she wasn't monitored. And, although she took the usual precautions in the emergency room:

Glover: "There were times when there was no time to grab a glove and everyone has done that in the emergency room. You end up with your bare hands because there is a life to save."

By 1996, Denise was getting sick a lot: Muscle pain, difficulty breathing. She again went to the hospital's employee services and was again given a clean bill of health.

A year later, Denise and her new husband were buying their dream home in Upstate New York. She applied for life insurance, and took the required blood test. A letter came declining the insurance because of her medical history. The blood test showed her positive for hepatitis C.

Glover: "I thought they made a mistake."

But when Denise had a friend check back through the hospital's computer, it was there: In 1994, three years earlier, Denise had tested positive for the disease.

Glover: "All I wanted from them was to say, 'well, to try to find out what happened.' How did this happen? And I was told, well, you know, 'you fell through the cracks'."

The Investigators obtained documents showing the hospital was disciplined by the Health Department for failing to notify Denise and for other deficiencies: In particular, that "the employee health services had failed to ensure health care providers were free from health impairments which pose potential risk to patients or personnel."

Because Denise is now suing, the hospital declined to be interviewed for this story. But a spokeswoman told us that since 1994 there have been substantial improvements in their follow-up procedures for health care workers potentially exposed to infectious diseases and that hospital staff have always taken precautions in dealing with patients.

    

But because she didn't know about her positive result, Denise lost years of crucial treatment.

Physician: "Treating the acute infection, treating it after you get it within the first 90 to 120 days will make a significant difference in the cure rate."

Hepatitis C is now the leading cause of liver transplantation in this country. It's known as the stealth disease because patients often don't show symptoms for years until their livers are damaged beyond repair. Bill Hancock recently got a diagnosis. He thought he was just overworked.

The only current treatment is the drug combination of Interferon and Ribavirin which can produce terrible side effects. A major story in last month's "Esquire" magazine called hepatitis C a pandemic, a classification just below an epidemic. Aside from health care workers, hepatitis C typically targets males who are now between 30 and 50 years old.

Physician: "Even being a roommate sharing a razor with somebody who used I.V. drugs or had a transfusion before 1992, I think it would be a wise thing to get the antibody test. It is quite easy, you just ask your doctor, it is a routine blood test."

Unfortunately for Denise, that routine blood test somehow got lost in the shuffle. Now she's lost her livelihood and can't get health insurance. She was even forced to file bankruptcy.

Glover: "I hate waking up in the morning. I don't want to wake up each morning because I am faced with the same thing."

In court papers, the hospital denies any negligence. There is treatment for Hepatitis C, but the drugs often produce terrible side effects. Hopefully, the Food and Drug administration will approve a new, improved treatment this year.