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Editorial: VA hospital's blunder puts patients at risk

By refusing to divulge to the public the specific details about how an improperly cleaned medical scope came into contact with patients, the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center is unduly sending shock waves to hundreds of patients.

How could a facility under scrutiny twice in the past five years over its procedures go down that path again? Changes must be made so that men and women who put their lives on the line for their country do not have to worry about being harmed in a hospital.

The case at hand involves a recent review of the disinfection process for the reusable equipment known as endoscopes, tubes used by doctors to explore inside patients’ bodies. Disturbingly, some steps in the manufacturer’s instructions may not have been followed in some cases by an employee of the hospital. Inadequately cleaned medical scopes can transmit hepatitis C, HIV and other illnesses.

The mistake put 526 patients at risk of infection. Medical center officials characterize the risk as “very low,” and offer free screening to the patients.

The VA cheats the public when it refuses to offer any additional information, including what type of procedures the patients received, and over what period of time. Medical center officials are being mum on when or how the issue was discovered, and exactly what steps in the cleaning process were not followed.

The lack of precision simply opens the imagination to all sorts of unlikely but terrifying possibilities.

As News medical reporter Henry L. Davis wrote, the devices are known to be difficult to clean, requiring many steps to prepare them for use in the next patient.

Even institutions with the most rigorous standards can have difficulty stopping contamination. But that information should force institutions to step up efforts to prevent infections.

The Buffalo VA Medical Center has been called out in recent years for processes that were questionable or just plain inadequate. This latest case is distressing, to say the least, and compounded by the official silence.

We can and must do better by our veterans.

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