Exeter Hospital closes lab after 4 diagnosed with hepatitis
By Aaron Sanborn
EXETER — Exeter Hospital has closed its cardiac catheterization lab after four patients contracted hepatitis C. The hospital is also urging the 651 patients who have utilized the lab since August to come in for testing. Exeter Hospital and the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health Services made the announcement during a press conference Thursday. Hospital officials said the investigation into the outbreak began May 14 after a few patients contacted the hospital after showing “acute” symptoms of the hepatitis C infection. State health officials were then notified, and it was later confirmed that four patients had contracted the same strain of the disease. This means they were infected by the same source, according to state health officials. While it’s unknown how the patients contracted the infection, it was determined that all four patients were connected to the cardiac catheterization lab and its recovery unit. Operations at the lab were suspended on May 25. Dr. Richard Hollister, chairman of medicine at Exeter Hospital, said that in addition to the 651 catheterization lab patients who have been asked to come back to the hospital for testing, 28 hospital staff members connected to the lab were tested on May 29. Results of the employee tests are not yet known. According to Dr. Jose Montero, the state’s public health director, the investigation is in its early stages and nothing has been ruled out. “We are going to do the best that we can to identify the source of this particular cluster,” he said. Montero said he is not sure how long the investigation will take. “Rest assured, the state with the collaboration of the hospital will go the whole nine yards to find out how this happened so we can close that loop and prevent anything like this from happening again here and anywhere else in the state,” he said. Montero said this is the first hepatitis C breakout in New Hampshire in a clinical setting. “Experience from other cases is you don’t always get back to the original source, but hopefully we can,” he said. The state will also look into whether the hospital followed proper health standards and procedures. Montero described hepatitis C as an infectious disease that is acquired through blood, mostly from injecting drugs intravenously. He said not everyone shows symptoms of the disease and as a result many cases go unreported. He said the Centers for Disease Control receives about 800 cases annually, but in reality there are 12,000-18,000 new cases each year. If the nation’s entire population was tested, about 3 million people would have the infection, he said. “When you start looking and you start testing, you’re going to find hepatitis C,” Montero said. He said there are six different strains of the disease, and the one contracted by the four Exeter Hospital patients is the most common. Acute symptoms of the strain include loss of appetite, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea and change in urine and stool color. He said the infection is treatable but becomes more serious, and in some cases deadly, when it develops into a chronic infection. Fifteen to 20 percent of people infected never show signs of the disease, according to Montero. Montero said he doesn’t think the general public should be concerned as it seems this outbreak is limited to the one lab at Exeter Hospital. If that changes, he said, the public will be alerted immediately. Kevin Callahan, president and chief executive officer of Exeter Health Resources, said the hospital is committed to conducting a thorough investigation. “We are taking this situation very seriously and are absolutely committed to working jointly with the state to find the source of this infection,” he said. Officials declined to give any information about the four infected patients. Hospital officials said they expect that cardiac catheterization lab will be cleared soon to resume operations. Patients who need to be tested are being contacted via phone and letters. The hospital is providing this confidential testing at no charge for these patients. Test results are expected to take 7-10 days and results will be sent directly to the patient’s primary care physician. Those with questions are asked to call (603) 271-4496. Hospital officials said they will provide sporadic updates about the situation.