HONG KONG - Hong Kong's Queen Mary Hospital has found that a common reusable blood collection tool could have led to hepatitis C being spread among its patients, in the first such case in the world, South China Morning Post reported on Saturday (March 31).
A reusable plastic blood tube holder, which helps medical staff draw blood, has been confirmed to contained the virus, which can stay alive on the material for as long as a month, the report said, citing the city's top microbiologist, Professor Yuen Kwok Yung.
The hospital had first suspected something was amiss when it found high levels of the hepatitis C virus in a liver transplant patient after she died of multiple organ failure last December.
The patient had not displayed any risk factors before her death.
An investiation led by Prof Yuen identified the source of the virus as a male drug addict who was at the public hospital at the same time.
"But even though the male patient and female were at Queen Mary Hospital at the same time, they stayed in two different wards away from each other due to their gender differences," Prof Yuen was quoted by SCMP as saying on Saturday when announcing the results of his investigation.
"We believe it was not likely for one of them to run into the other's room and pass on the virus. So how did the infection happen? We thought the only connection between the two patients was the blood collection trolley, which travels around different wards."
Prof Yuen said his team finally discovered very tiny droplets of blood on the blood tube holder.
"It is a very rare incident and had never been reported in the world. Many hospitals around the world use the same reusable holder," he said.
"A disposable holder is only used in hospitals in some rich countries."
Prof Yuen said this was not a medical blunder as the World Health Organisation agreed that the tool could be reused. "I cannot see any suggestion of human error," he added.
Queen Mary Hospital's chief executive, Dr Luk Che Chung, said the transplant ward had immediately replaced the reusable tool with a disposable one, and other wards would do the same gradually.
Dr Luk believed 100 patients may have been exposed as they were in at the wards at around the same period. Some had since died for different reasons or had already been tested for the disease.
The hospital wanted to screen 58 patients and had managed to contact 43, with 15 still being sought.
Hong Kong's Hospital Authority said public hospitals have alerted medics about the risk of using such a tool, but it would take time to replace all of them.