Victorian police are trying to find out whether a doctor deliberately infected 12 women with hepatitis C.
The women were all patients at a Melbourne abortion clinic between June 2008 and December 2009.
The state’s health department went public with its suspicions on Friday, but the department and the Victorian health minister are defending the decision to keep the matter quiet until now.
Suspicions were raised when the Victorian Department of Health noticed in December that three women diagnosed with hepatitis C had all been patients of the same clinic.
When a further nine cases were linked to the clinic early this year the department decided the police needed to be notified.
Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr John Carnie, says he cannot explain how 12 people could be infected by accident.
“I find it difficult to imagine how an accidental transmission could affect 12 patients and because of that difficulty we have tried to involve the police and the medical board in this investigation,” Dr Carnie said.
Dr Carnie would not say what sort of procedures the women had undergone, but it was confirmed today that the doctor is an anaesthetist.
He had been working at the clinic at Croydon in Melbourne’s outer-east.
The Victorian Health Department started testing the clinic’s staff in January, but at that time the doctor was overseas. He was tested on his return to Melbourne in early February.
Dr Carnie says it was confirmed the doctor had hepatitis C. Further testing, which Dr Carnie likens to testing fingerprints, showed that three of the women had the same strain of hepatitis C as the doctor.
It is known as genotype 1B and is a relatively rare form of the virus in Australia.
The Medical Practitioners Board declined to say if the doctor is from overseas.
Dr Carnie says the Victorian Health Department did a great job in identifying the hepatitis C cluster.
“We get over 2,000 cases of hepatitis C being notified to the Department. Out of those 2,000-odd cases in total, being able to find this very small number of cases that have this link to the clinic has been the result of very detailed and painstaking work on the part of the communicable disease area,” he said.
People who underwent surgery at the clinic between June 2008 and December 2009 are being contacted by the Department of Health.
But Dr Carnie will not speculate on the number of people that may have been infected.
“This whole episode is going to clearly cause distress in the community. I don’t want to add to that concern by starting to speculate on total numbers,” he said.
Of the 12 women who tested positive to hepatitis C, two have now cleared the virus from their bloodstreams, which Dr Carnie says is not unusual.
The other 10 women are at risk of developing cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.
But Dr Carnie says that anti-viral treatment can cure some cases.
The doctor in question was suspended in mid-February after already giving the Victorian Department of Health an undertaking not to practice while the matter was being investigated.
Dr Carnie has defended the amount of time it took to suspend the doctor.
“From the time the clinic reopened after the holidays there was no ongoing risk to anyone and this person has not worked at that clinic since his return from overseas,” he said.
The President of the Victorian Medical Practitioners Board, Robert Adler, says doctors who have Hepatitis C are allowed to practice, but only if they follow infection control procedures and don’t do what are known as “exposure prone surgical procedures” like those in internal cavities or those with a higher risk of needle stick injury.
“Normal anaesthesia that follows infection control guidelines carries an extremely low or non-existent risk of transmission of Hepatitis C provided the doctor follows infection control guidelines,” he said.
The hepatitis C cluster was revealed in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper this morning. Dr Carnie says it was not necessary to notify the public earlier.
“We are in the process of starting to call people back, other people who may have had procedures at this clinic and we didn’t want them to be alarmed by a call from the Department,” he said.
“We we wanted them to be aware of the issue that we’re dealing with and that was the reason for making this public.”
Victorian Health Minister, Daniel Andrews, says he was notified of the initial cluster of three cases of Hepatitis C on the December 22 last year.
He does not believe the public should have been notified earlier.
“I am confident that the chief health officer and my department, more broadly, have made appropriate contacts with Victoria Police and I’m confident that my department and the chief health officer have at all times, and at all stages, acted appropriately in relation to these issues,” Mr Andrews said.