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St. Joseph's General Hospital in Vegreville has restricted the number of visitors because of equipment sterilization concerns. ((CBC))

Health officials are reviewing fouryears ofpatient records ata rural Alberta hospital after an investigation into a superbug outbreak revealed that hospital equipment wasn't properly sterilized.

Dr. Gerhard Benadé, the region's medical health officer, issued a public health order Friday requiring St. Joseph's General Hospital in Vegreville to halt all admissions and close its sterilization room. The order was not made public until Tuesday.

Benadé discovered the sterilization problem while investigating an outbreak among patients ofmethicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

Seven patients in the 25-bed hospitaleast of Edmonton contracted the antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection over a one-month period beginning in mid-January.

"These are minor infections, usually skin infections, if any symptoms at all," said Dr. Karen Grimsrud, deputy provincial health officer.

Grimsrud said the bug is generally spread by health-care workers not washing their hands between patients.

'Entirely about patient safety'

While investigating the outbreak, Benadé uncovered the unrelated problem of improper sterilization of medical equipment at the hospital.

Benadésaid it was the first time he had been in the sterilization room since he started his jobsix years ago, and he made the decision to shut the room down as soon as he saw the problem.

He said the risk to patients is low.

"We want to be transparent with this process. It is entirely about patient safety. We will err on the side of caution.We willidentify every single individual that might potentially be at risk."

Health officials are now checking records of patients back to April 2003, including those who had surgeries or emergency room procedures. They are sending letters to those exposed to equipment that was inadequately sterilized and advising them to get tested for HIV, as well as hepatitis B and C.

Alberta Health Minister Dave Hancock said although the risk to patients is low,it is prudent toreview four years of medical records just in case.

"What we do know is that patients who have had surgical procedures or treatment in the emergency roomat St. Joseph's may be at very low riskof exposure to blood-borne pathogens," he said.

Contaminated with tissue, blood

The emergency room alone sees 14,000 people every year.

Grimsrud confirmed that for one biopsy procedure alone — cystoscopy — 80 patients were being contacted.Scopes used during surgery need to be thoroughly sterilized, but that wasn't happening at St. Joseph's, she said.

"There's tissue and blood left from the previous patient in that scope if it was not cleaned thoroughly with a brush and scrubbed and then is put into a sterilizer, so the concern was then the scope used on the next patient may still have material in it that can then transmit either HIV, hep B or hep C."

Benadésaid if blood tests show anyone contractedHIV or any other disease at the hospital, officials will search for patients from even earlier dates.

Emergency and acute-care patients at the hospital in east-central Alberta are being sent to other nearby hospitals, and medical equipment requiring sterilization is also being sent to other hospitals.

With files from the Canadian Press