ASHLEY HALL: The number of hepatitis C infections linked to a Melbourne medical centre is incresing and so is the fear that those infections were not accidental. It has been confirmed that 44 patients who attended the abortion clinic in Melbourne’s north-east have contracted hepatitis C.
Half of those cases can definitely be linked to the private clinic, while more women are waiting on test results to find out the origin of their infections. The Victorian Health Department has already contacted more than 1,100 women asking them to be tested. Now it’s widening the net to see how far back the problem goes.
And as Simon Lauder reports, Victoria’s chief health officer says it’s getting harder to accept that the infections were accidental.
SIMON LAUDER: When the link between the Croydon Day Surgery and a hepatitis C cluster was revealed in early April only 12 infections were known. Now that figure has grown to 44 and Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr John Carnie, says suspicions are growing that the women were deliberately infected.
JOHN CARNIE: It becomes more and more difficult to explain this by any other, by an accidental means.
SIMON LAUDER: Dr James Peters, who worked at the surgery, was suspended from practising in February. Twenty-two of the known cases so far have been linked with the strain of hepatitis C that he carries. Some are still having more tests to find out if it is the same strain and some of the women who contracted hepatitis C are already clear of the disease.
Victoria’s health chief says some of the former patients of the abortion clinic may never know if they got the disease there.
JOHN CARNIE: Well that will never be able to prove one way or the other.
SIMON LAUDER: So far the health department has focussed its tests on women who went to the clinic in 2008 and 2009. But Dr John Carnie says women who had procedures done there in 2006 and 2007 should also receive advice and possibly get a test. All up, more than 3,500 women may need to be tested for hepatitis C.
JOHN CARNIE: If we don’t get any positives then we could be sure that the risk was confined to 2008 and ’09.
SIMON LAUDER: Victoria’s Health Minister Daniel Andrews says there’s no evidence so far that infection control policies have failed.
DANIEL ANDREWS: What is puzzling about this case and leads us to the conclusion that this is about personal behaviour rather than processes is that, despite our best efforts, no infection control breakdown, no failure of established systems and processes can be found.
SIMON LAUDER: The head of Hepatitis C Victoria, Helen McNeill, says she’s very concerned by the high number of cases linked with the clinic and she’s expecting more to be discovered.
HELEN MCNEILL: Well unfortunately, yes, the numbers could certainly become much higher because that’s about a third that they’ve contacted at this stage.
SIMON LAUDER: And of the women that Hepatitis C Victoria has been in contact with, how are they coping?
HELEN MCNEILL: Obviously it’s quite complex. To receive a diagnosis of a chronic illness like hepatitis C is devastating for anyone who becomes infected. The complications that occur because these women were undergoing a medical procedure at the time that they contracted hepatitis C just adds to the level of complexity in them getting their head around what’s happened and what they need to do now. So they’ve been quite distressed.
SIMON LAUDER: As the number of infections linked to Dr James Peters grows, so does a lawsuit which is being formed to seek compensation. Slater and Gordon medical law expert, Paula Shelton, says so far 30 women are considering mounting a class action against Dr Peters and the clinic.
PAULA SHELTON: It would not surprise me if we ended up with, you know, 100 infections from this incident.
SIMON LAUDER: What is the main concern of most of the women who’ve come forward to you? What do they want out of this?
PAULA SHELTON: The women are devastated. I mean they’re people who’ve been through a traumatic event and then to be told well, now you’ve got this disease that may be permanent and at worst case, you know, can kill you it, they just feel violated. You know, when you put your trust in someone going into surgery you don’t expect this kind of thing to happen.
SIMON LAUDER: Dr Peters had his medical licence suspended in the ’90s after a conviction for forging prescriptions. It’s believed he was also known to the Medical Practitioners Board as a drug user.
Paula Shelton says the class action may also target the day surgery and the Medical Practitioners Board.
PAULA SHELTON: My concern about the board is that they were aware of potential problems with this particular doctor. My information is that they identified him as being drug dependent. They put him through a program to assist him with that. I believe there was some testing over a period of time and then he’s just been let go and practised completely unrestricted.
SIMON LAUDER: The Medical Practitioners Board and the Croydon Day Surgery say they won’t comment on the matter while investigations continue. Victoria Police says its own investigation will be long and involved but any criminal behaviour will be uncovered and dealt with appropriately.