New Hampshire police probe hospital hepatitis outbreak

LITTLETON, New Hampshire Thu Jun 14, 2012 7:27pm EDT

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LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - New Hampshire state police have launched a criminal investigation into a hepatitis C outbreak that has sickened 20 people linked to a cardiac laboratory at a hospital in the town of Exeter, the state attorney general's office said.

The source of the outbreak may be a practice known as drug diversion, when a hospital staff member injects himself or herself with medication intended for patients and later uses the same syringe on patients.

"There is this question of drug diversion and whether we have a potential drug diverter in our organization," Kevin Callahan, chief executive officer of Exeter Health Resources, said in an interview taped for television station WMUR.

All 20 people with the disease had been to a laboratory that performs cardiac catheterization, a procedure that involves running a thin tube through arteries to the heart and allows physicians to see whether there are blockages that could lead to a heart attack.

One of those afflicted was an employee of the hospital. The other 19 were patients.

Hepatitis C is an infectious liver ailment that can lead to cancer or cirrhosis. More than 4 million Americans have the disease, and up to 85 percent will develop chronic infection. Of those, 75 percent will get chronic liver disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The hospital announced the first diagnoses on May 31 and said it had temporarily closed the lab in question. It is now testing all patients who used the lab since October 2010.

(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Lisa Von Ahn)

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