Nearly 450 hospital patients in Massachusetts could have been exposed to hepatitis and HIV

Close-up of IV drip bag in emergency room. Medicine is passing through pipe from intravenous drip.
The potential exposures were due to IV medications being improperly administered. (Image credit: Portra via Getty Images)

Nearly 450 patients treated at Salem Hospital in Massachusetts could have been exposed to hepatitis and HIV due to improperly administered IV drugs.

"Earlier this year, Salem Hospital was made aware of an isolated practice involving a small portion of endoscopy patients who were potentially exposed to infection due to the administration of their intravenous medication in a manner not consistent with our best practice," according to a statement from Mass General Brigham (MGB), the health care system Salem Hospital belongs to. (Endoscopies involve a doctor inserting a tubelike instrument into a patient's body to capture images of specific tissues.)

"Once identified, the practice was immediately corrected, and the hospital's quality and infection control teams were notified," according to the statement, which was shared with Live Science via email. The practice involved a single contracted individual who no longer works at Salem Hospital, MGB spokesperson Adam Bagni added in an email.

Once notified, the hospital reviewed the situation and consulted with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Together with the public health officials, the hospital staff determined that "the infection risk to patients from this event is extremely small." So far, there has been no evidence of any infections caused by the incident.

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Salem Hospital has contacted all patients who were potentially affected and is offering free screening for two types of viral hepatitis — hepatitis B and hepatitis C — and HIV, "which are standard tests for a potential exposure of this kind," Bagni said. The hospital has also established a clinician-staffed hotline to answer patients' questions.

The potential exposures took place between June 14, 2021, and April 19, 2023, local news outlet The Salem News reported. That's according to a message sent to patients by Dr. Mitchell Rein, former chief medical officer at Salem Hospital.

To avoid potentially exposing patients to blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV, health care workers should ensure they never use the same needle and syringe on more than one patient, Dr. Shira Doron, chief infection control officer for the Tufts Medicine health system, told NBC News. They should also avoid placing a cap on a used syringe with a needle in it, so other workers don't mistakenly believe it's safe to use. Health care facilities also have strict standards for how to sanitize needles, syringes and other equipment before they're used, she added.

In its statement, MGB did not specify the exact nature of the improper practice that put the endoscopy patients at risk of exposure.

However, Geoff Millar, a patient who reported being contacted by the hospital about a potential exposure, told The Salem News that he'd called the hospital's hotline and was told a piece of equipment intended for single use had been reused for his procedure. It was not the IV needle or endoscopy tube that was reused but a different piece of equipment needed to administer anesthesia.

A class-action lawsuit is now reportedly being filed against Salem Hospital over the incident, NBC News' Boston affiliate reported.

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Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.