Women who gave birth or had an obstetric or gynaecological operation at 16 UK hospitals between 1975 and 2003 may have come into contact with a healthcare worker infected with hepatitis C.
While the risk of infection is small, the numbers affected likely to be few and the health consequences may not be particularly noticeable, concerned women should seek help and advice.
It has recently come to light that the healthcare worker transmitted the virus to two patients while working at Caerphilly District Miners Hospital in Wales from 1984 until they stopped working with patients in 2002.
Fewer than 400 women in England have so far been identified as having definitely or possibly had operations conducted by the affected healthcare worker. They will be contacted directly and blood tests can arranged at their GP practice.
What is being done to help women potentially infected?
Local health officials are looking at more than 3,000 former hospital patients’ notes and records from the Caerphilly District Miners Hospital (where the worker was employed for nearly 20 years). Around 200 former hospital patients from two other hospitals in Wales where the healthcare worker practised for a short time are also being contacted.
Those patients identified as exposed or possibly exposed to hepatitis C are being sent individual letters and asked to call a special confidential helpline, inviting them to attend a hospital clinic or, if they have moved away from the area, their GP for a blood test. Treatments for hepatitis C will be offered if necessary.
As it has been almost 30 years since the individual worked in hospitals in England, records of women who may be at risk are in some cases incomplete, for example if the hospital has been renamed or patients have moved around the country.
Who might potentially be at risk from hepatitis C infection?
The person worked in obstetrics and gynaecology at several hospitals around the UK between 1975 and 2003. Potentially, women who gave birth or had obstetric/gynaecological operations at these hospitals may be at a small risk of infection. The hospitals in question are:
- Grimsby General Hospital (September 3 1975 to March 6 1978) – now Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital
- Burnley General Hospital (April 5 to 30 1978)
- Wrexham Maelor Hospital (May 15 to June 27 1978)
- Bedford Hospital (July 3 to August 6 1978 & November 4 to 19 1978)
- City General Hospital, Carlisle (August 31 to September 17 1978 and April 12 to May 2 1982) – now Cumberland Infirmary
- Herts and Essex Hospital (December 4 1978 to January 10 1979)
- The Mid Ulster Hospital, Magherafelt (January 11 to November 4 1979)
- All Saints Hospital, Kent (November 5 to 16 1979) – now Medway Maritime Hospital
- Fife Hospitals (March 25 to July 3 1981)
- Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport (July 20 to November 2 1981)
- Doncaster Gate Hospital, Rotherham (July 23 to August 18 1982) – now Rotherham Hospital
- Royal Victoria Hospital, Boscombe (September 27 to October 10 1982) – now the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch NHS Foundation Trust
- Royal General Hospital, Treliske (February 8 to March 19 1983 & May 9 to June 21 1983) – now the Royal Cornwall Hospital
- Peterborough District Hospital (November 28 to December 2 1983) – now Peterborough City Hospital
- East Glamorgan Hospital (May 28 1984 to July 17 1984)
- Caerphilly District Miners Hospital (May 1984 to July 2003)
What is the risk if you were treated at these hospitals?
Public Health England says that there is only a small chance that a patient might acquire hepatitis C infection through surgical contact with an infected healthcare worker. The risk is very low as this can only occur if the healthcare worker is infectious and leads or assists in an operation or procedure on the patient. However, even in such circumstances transmission is very rare.
What happens if you are infected with hepatitis C?
Around one in 250 adults in England have chronic hepatitis C infection and it does not automatically lead to health problems. Each year 10,000 people are newly infected.
Why was the healthcare worker allowed to work in the NHS while infected with hepatitis C?
Like most people who are infected with hepatitis C, the healthcare worker had no symptoms and was unaware of the infection until after they retired.
As soon as the risk of infection was recognised, and a transmission was confirmed, their occupational history was traced.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Only around one in four people will have symptoms during the first six months of a hepatitis C infection. The flu-like symptoms can include high temperature and feeling sick. Some may also experience jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).
In around three-quarters of people, the virus persists for many years (chronic hepatitis). Some may not notice symptoms but others will be greatly affected. Signs of chronic hepatitis include feeling tired all the time (with no benefit from sleep), headaches, depression, problems with short-term memory (“brain fog") and itchy skin.
What is being done about the risk of hepatitis C in the NHS?
Since 2007, all new NHS healthcare workers have been tested for hepatitis C.
Healthcare workers also have a professional duty to get tested if they consider themselves at risk of contracting a blood-borne virus.
Links to the headlines
BBC News, 11 September 2013
ITV News, 11 September 2013