CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The Veterans Affairs Department is investigating whether there's a link between a patient's positive HIV test and unsterilized equipment that may have exposed thousands of veterans to infectious diseases.
The positive test was the first reported since the department warned veterans treated at three clinics that they might be at risk.
The VA previously reported that hepatitis was found in 16 patients, but the agency cautioned there was no way to prove that the patients contracted the illnesses because of treatment at their facilities.
In an e-mail late Friday, the agency said it was investigating "the possibility of such a relationship."
The VA earlier this year warned more than 10,000 veterans to get blood tests because they could have been exposed to contamination while getting colonoscopies in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami.
The endoscopic equipment in question was also used at an ear, nose and throat facility in Augusta, Ga. All three sites failed to properly sterilize the equipment between treatments.
The VA has said it does not yet know if veterans who were treated with the same kind of equipment at its other 150 hospitals may have been exposed to the same mistake before the department had a nationwide safety training campaign. An agency spokeswoman has said the VA is certain the mistake with the equipment was corrected nationwide by March 14.
The problems dated back for more than five years at the Murfreesboro and Miami hospitals.
So far, less than a third — 3,174 — have been notified of their test results. The agency also is trying to locate patients whose warning letters were returned.
The statement Friday did not say where the patient who tested positive for HIV was treated, and the agency did not return telephone and e-mail messages Monday.
In all, at least five veterans have tested positive for hepatitis B and 11 for hepatitis C, which is potentially life-threatening.
No infections have been reported from Miami.
All three sites used endoscopic equipment made by Olympus American Inc., which said in a statement it is helping the VA address problems with "inadvertently neglecting to appropriately reprocess a specific auxiliary water tube."
The problem put patients at risk of being exposed to other patients' body fluids.
Megan Longenderfer, an Olympus spokeswoman, said the company sent notices to 5,800 "customer accounts," but a facility could have more than one endoscope.
A lawyer with more than a dozen clients who had colonoscopies at the VA hospital in Murfreesboro said some have tested positive for hepatitis but none for HIV.
Attorney Mike Sheppard said in an e-mail Monday that one client had espoghageal cancer and died from "massive infection" soon after getting a colonoscopy. He said medical records are being reviewed for any connection between the infection and exposure.
The VA has established a 24-hour toll-free hot line for patients and their families at (877) 575-7256.