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Ten Alicante patients contract hepatitis through medical negligence

Same saline solution bag was used for several intravenous transfusions

An archive photo of the Marina Baixa Hospital (La Vila Joiosa, Alicante).
An archive photo of the Marina Baixa Hospital (La Vila Joiosa, Alicante).

Ten patients at Marina Baixa Hospital, in Villajoyosa (Alicante province), were infected with hepatitis C due to medical negligence, an official report shows. The case was uncovered when a 35-year-old woman filed a complaint after a routine checkup found her to have contracted the disease during her stay at this public health center in December 2011.

An internal investigation found that nine other patients were infected around the same time, probably due to the use of the same saline solution bag for intravenous transfusions on several patients, instead of individual bags as recommended by good practice guidelines.

The report by the epidemiology section of the Valencian health service is dated August 30, 2013, but was not released until this week. On Monday, the Patient Ombudsman association said it had filed a complaint with the Valencian Health Agency over the case of the 35-year-old woman who was the first to realize that her sudden infection was linked to her surgery at Marina Baixa Hospital in late 2011.

My client panics about the possibility of infecting her husband as well"

"She is emotionally distraught; they've ruined her life," says her lawyer, Ignacio Martínez. "She panics about the possibility of infecting her husband as well. She's afraid of having sexual relations."

Sources at the Valencian government admitted the facts and said there are seven legal and administrative proceedings underway following complaints by other affected patients. The report notes that there might have been even more cases, but 13 other target patients were dead by the time the study was conducted, while investigators were unable to locate a British national who was also hospitalized at the center on December 1, 2011.

The study concludes that "the date of exposure was probably between November 30 and December 1." Investigators feel that the most likely culprit is a bag of saline solution used originally on a patient who had the virus, then on the others.

On the night of December 29, the original hepatitis C carrier suffered a digestive hemorrhage. Health workers opened up a second intravenous line for an emergency transfusion. It is possible, the report says, that stabilizing the patient required using the saline solution several times via a process that involves extracting the liquid with a needle and injecting it into the patient's catheter. "If, during this process, the same needle were inadvertently used, the multidosage saline solution bag would have been contaminated."

Of the 10 patients who were infected, as of the report's drafting three had already required medical treatment, and a fourth was about to embark on it. One more had died because of an unrelated pathology. Regional health authorities told EL PAÍS that multidosage bags are no longer being used.

"These cases are very rare," says Rafael Cantón, vice-president of the Spanish Society for Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology. "Hospital infection rates have dropped very significantly in Spain."

Hepatitis C may be present in the body without any symptoms, which creates the long-term risk of liver damage in the shape of cirrhosis or liver cancer. In 20-25 percent of people who have been in contact with the virus, the pathogen disappears spontaneously. For the rest, the sooner treatment begins, the greater the possibilities of eradicating the infection, notes Enrique Ortega, head of the infectious disease unit at the Valencia General Hospital. Treating patients with ribavirin and interferon during the six months following infection raises the chances of success to 90 percent.

After a six-month treatment, the 35-year-old woman who denounced her case now has a very low viral content in her body, says her lawyer. "But she is still devastated."