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North Shore doctor may have spread hepatitis C

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At least seven people who were cardiac patients at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, L.I. could have contracted hepatitis C from one of the hospital’s heart surgeons.

An investigation by the state Health Department and tests by the Centers for Disease Control confirmed that seven patients operated on by an unnamed cardiac surgeon between August 1993 and November 2000 had been infected with the potentially deadly virus.

“We suspect that in all likelihood the surgeon in question was infected by one of his patients,” said Dennis Dowling, executive director of North Shore University Hospital, at a news conference March 27.

“When an ongoing analysis by the hospital and Department of Health showed a possible link to a surgeon, he voluntarily agreed to be tested in August 2001 and pre-emptively changed his surgical techniques and practices to minimize the risk of virus being transferred to the patient.”

Hospital officials did not reveal the doctor’s name, but described him as a very talented surgeon who performed 3,000 to 4,000 procedures between 1993 to 2000.

The hospital did not have an exact number of Queens patients on whom the surgeon had operated. Officials said they were in the process of determining where the doctor’s patients lived.

Hepatitis C is a life-threatening liver disease that is transmitted through blood contact with an infected person. Those at risk are people who received blood transfusions and organ transplants prior to 1987, dialysis patients and intravenous drug users.

“Most people walk around and don’t know or are well,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore. “For most people who have a liver disease it takes decades to develop.”

Kristine Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said her office began investigating the problem after Nassau County reported someone had mysteriously contacted the disease. She said there was “nothing that indicated how he contracted the disease.”

Through that patient and three other North Shore patients who had contracted the disease, her office was able to link the transmission of hepatitis to the surgeon through “extensive epidemiology study and lab results,” she said. After coming to the conclusion in August, the Department of Health sent the blood of the patients and doctor to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The CDC determined the disease had the same genotype and mutations. Smith said the tests are not 100 percent exact but are conclusive to a very close degree.

When it was determined the North Shore doctor was infected, the Department of Health and the hospital required all staff members who were performing surgery with him to wear double gloves, use clamps and employ blunt rather than sharp needles.

“Since implementing these additional precautions, there have been no additional cases over the past nine months,” Dowling said. “To confirm this, the hospital has been taking blood samples from all cardiac patients undergoing surgery by this surgeon.”

Farber said since the doctor was required to tell all his patients about his disease, “it is remarkable how many people continue with the procedures.”

He said people understand that there are always risks in surgery and they are more concerned with the quality of the surgeon.

“The health and well-being of our patients has always been the primary goal of North Shore University Hospital and its nationally renowned cardiac surgery program,” said Dowling. “The hospital has sought out infectious disease experts specializing in hepatitis C to help us coordinate the safest and most appropriate manner to provide information and testing to patients.”

He said that in conjunction with the state Department of Health, the hospital is attempting to contact all of the cardiac program patients since 1993 by mail. Dowling said patients potentially exposed are advised to get a blood test at the hospital or at their doctor’s office.

People with questions or concerns can call the hospital at (516) 562-3580 or (516) 562-3581.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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