Improperly cleaned medical equipment at the clinic at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar may have exposed as many as 135 patients to blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C over an eight-year period.
The Air Force Surgeon General said Monday that Air Force Medical Service found that endoscopes used for upper and lower gastrointestinal procedures "were cleaned in a manner inconsistent with sterilization guidelines" between April 2008 and April 2016. During that period, 135 patients had procedures using those medical tools.
In a follow-up email in response to an Air Force Times question, the surgeon general's office said that blood-borne diseases that patients may have been exposed to could include HIV and the two kinds of hepatitis.
The Air Force Medical Service is now notifying patients who may have been exposed, and is providing contact information for healthcare resolution specialists who can answer patient questions and help them find places for medical counseling and testing.
Larine Barr, a spokeswoman for the surgeon general, said that the risk of infection is "very small, particularly in a deployed environment," since all service members are required to have a negative HIV test before they deploy. The Air Force also tests service members for Hepatitis B, Barr said.
In the release, Brig. Gen. Robert Miller, commander of the Air Force Medical Operations Agency, apologized to patients and said that although the risk of infection is small, patients who are notified that they may have been exposed should get tested to make sure.
"Providing quality health care to our airmen and their families is our top priority," Miller said. "We apologize to our patients and assure them that appropriate actions have been taken to address and mitigate the causes that led to this problem."
The Air Force has issued a service-wide patient safety alert to make sure all facilities are following the proper processes for cleaning, decontaminating, inspecting and sterilizing endoscopes, as well as all other reusable medical instruments and devices, the release said. The service's experts are also reviewing current practices to figure out better processes and keep this from happening again, the release said.
The release said that the clinic at Al Udeid no longer performs endoscopies or colonoscopies, and all other procedures were unaffected.
"Our patients put their trust in us when they step into any of our medical facilities," Miller said. "We take potential risk to patient safety very seriously and are committed to informing those under our care of any increased risk."
The release included contact information for patients to contact healthcare resolution specialists:
- For those in the Eastern Daylight time zone, or outside the continental United States: (937) 656-3818
- For those in the Pacific or Mountain time zone, Hawaii or Alaska: (707) 423-3443
- For those in the Central time zone: (228) 376-5603
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.