Women to be tested for HIV, hepatitis due to disinfection issue at Rivière-du-Loup hospital

Health officials in eastern Quebec want to screen more than 300 women after being informed a hospital in Rivière-du-Loup didn't clean gynecological tools properly.

Health officials want to screen more than 300 women after improper cleaning of gynecological tools

The procedures were performed between 2011 and 2017 at the Grand-Portage hospital in Rivière-du-Loup. (Radio-Canada)

More than 300 women in the Lower St. Lawrence will have be tested for hepatitis, HIV and other viruses, after health officials discovered staff had not been following the proper disinfection protocol for some gynecological equipment.

The 312 women all underwent cryotherapy at the hospital in Rivière-du-Loup between 2011 and 2017, a procedure in which pre-cancerous cells on the cervix are "frozen and destroyed" using a cryosurgical unit "that looks like a gun," explained Dr. Jean-Christophe Carvalho, director of professional services for the region.

He said staff were wiping off the entire instrument with a cloth soaked in disinfectant, instead of submerging the devices for several minutes, which is required by new guidelines set out by Health Canada in 2017.

Carvalho said screening the women for HIV, Hepatitis B and C as well as the Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a precaution, since the risk of infection is one in 100,000.

While the risk of infection was low, public health said it was crucial to be transparent and contact the women who may have undergone this treatment.

He said staff only found out 18 months ago that there was a problem, after the company that makes the equipment  contacted the hospital.

"The company noticed that it was necessary for us to increase the level of disinfection to guarantee the security of the patients," said Carvalho.

The hospital immediately stopped performing the procedure.

Isolated case

It was Quebec's public health institute that first lodged a complaint to Health Canada about the cleaning technique.

"Medical staff on the ground asked us to verify the procedure," said Andrée Pelletier, a scientific consultant with the institute's research centre into medical equipment sterilization (CERDM).

Jean-Christophe Carvalho, the director of professional services with the regional health centre of the Lower Saint-Lawrence, said the hospital in Rivière-du-Loup suspended cryotherapy treatment between November 2017 and January 2018. (Simon Turcotte/Radio-Canada)

"We realized there were shortfalls," Pelletier said.

The CERDM called for more stringent disinfection protocol after researchers established there was a risk of infection, however small.

Health Canada sent out a public notice about how the devices should be cleaned in 2017. The company issued the new directives four months later, and started contacting institutions that use the device.

The Rivière-du-Loup hospital is the only place where the problem occurred, according to Pelletier.

The women who have undergone the procedure will receive a phone call from a nurse to arrange for blood and gynecological tests, and will also receive documentation explaining the situation.

With files from Catou MacKinnon