Issue: February 2013
February 01, 2013
6 min read

Patients exposed to HIV, hepatitis via insulin 
pen at VA hospital

Issue: February 2013
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During a 2-year period, as many as 700 patients admitted to the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System in Buffalo, N.Y., were potentially exposed to HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

In response to a request by Infectious Disease News, Evangeline Conley, public affairs officer for the VA Western New York Healthcare System, released the following statement:

“The Department of Veterans Affairs makes every effort to provide safe, quality care and to inform our Veterans of any possible concerns related to their care. VAWNYHS recently discovered that in some cases, insulin pens were not labeled for individual patients. Although the pen needles were always changed, an insulin pen may have been used on more than one patient. Once this was identified, immediate action was taken to ensure the insulin pens were labeled and only used according to pharmaceutical guidelines. Veterans who were inpatients only at VAWNYHS may have been affected. There is no indication that this is a systemic problem and no other VA medical facilities are affected. VAWNYHS has begun notifying Veterans explaining the situation and providing them with an opportunity to speak with a nurse who will answer questions they may have and assist with managing follow up care.

VA is committed to ensuring Veterans receive the care they earned and deserve, and to assuring high quality, patient-centered care as our top priority.”

Based on this information, Infectious Disease News and Endocrine Today spoke to experts in the field for their clinical perspective on the issue.

Robert T. Schooley, MD

Nosocomial transmission of pathogenic organisms has been an unfortunate complication of medical care since the advent of medicine. Until the germ theory of disease was accepted in the latter half of the 19th century, transmission of bacterial pathogens in civilian and military hospitals was one of the biggest risks of coming into contact with a member of our profession. With the advent of aseptic techniques, the risk of bacterial or fungal infection from contaminated equipment has been drastically reduced. 

Robert T. Schooley

Robert T. Schooley

Over the past 50 years, however, concerns about transmission of viral pathogens from medical equipment and supplies has supplanted those related to bacterial infection. Reuse of needles in Egypt in parenteral therapy for schistosomiasis is largely responsible for a 20% seroprevalence rate of hepatitis C virus in the Egyptian blood donor population. HCV was transmitted for many years in the US in the blood supply and, no doubt, on occasion when multi-dose vials were re-entered with contaminated needles.

At present HBV, HIV and HCV are the three viral pathogens that are of most concern in the US with respect to improper sterilization of reusable equipment, or in this particular case, the sharing of equipment meant to be used by single patients. The prevalence of these viruses varies among different populations in the US. In general, one would expect that they would be more highly prevalent in people who are in contact with the health care system. In those not on therapy, the titers of virus in blood (and certain other bodily fluids) may be extremely high. Although there is some variation from patient to patient, in general, HBV is present in the highest titers and HIV in the lowest. Other things being equal, transmission of HBV occurs more readily after a parenteral exposure than in the case of the other two viruses.

Proper management of exposures such as the one reported here requires several steps:

  • Expeditiously identify and characterize the source patients whenever possible. When source patients are known, it may be possible to characterize the prevalence of potentially transmissible pathogens in the population. Although this is less helpful when it is not possible to link specific source patients to specific patients who have been exposed, general knowledge about the prevalence of potentially transmissible pathogens may be useful in terms of understanding the general risk to the exposed population. When specific source patients can be linked to specific patients that they might have exposed, it is very helpful to know which particular pathogens are of most concern to the exposed patient.
  • Contact exposed patients as quickly as possible. In most, but not all, situations it is possible to specifically identify those who may have been exposed. In some situations, however, the ability to identify those at risk is less precise. For example, if failure of sterilizing equipment is noted, it might not be clear how long the equipment was malfunctioning. In cases in which individuals who may have been exposed can be identified, these individuals should be directly contacted  and invited for an appropriate medical assessment. In other situations, it might be necessary to make a public announcement about a period of time and characteristics of the populations that might have been exposed and to ask those individuals to contact the health facility involved in the exposure.  In addition to identifying those who may have been directly exposed within the health care setting, it is important to be aware that some pathogens may be sexually transmitted and strategies to identify potential secondary exposures should also be developed.
  • Counsel and provide appropriate medical surveillance and interventions to those placed at risk by the exposure. When contact with those at risk is made, it is critical that those who are exposed be provided with appropriate one-on-one counseling about their specific risk and that they be provided with easy access to appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Although public health guidelines may be helpful as an initial step in dealing with exposures such as this, the approach to counseling, diagnosis and management will vary from situation to situation. Robust plans for notification, diagnosis and management of those exposed must be developed for each event with the active involvement of physicians and epidemiologists with knowledge about the circumstances surrounding the exposure and about the most contemporary approach to management of the diseases in question. Although involvement of those with expertise in risk management is also critical to the process, their role should be to help operationalize the plans developed by health care professionals rather than vice versa.

It is important to recognize that antiviral therapeutics is a rapidly evolving field. Again, although public health guidelines may be a useful first step in planning the approach to a nosocomial event, public health guidelines have at least two inherent shortcomings.

David C. Klonoff, MD, FACP, Fellow AIMBE

Proper treatment for people with diabetes is to not share insulin pens or needles. Everybody is aware that needles should not be shared, but there must be a few people that don’t know that you’re also not supposed to share pens. The reason you’re not supposed to share needles is obvious because blood from one person can be passed on to the other person, and you can even see the blood. The reason pens should not be shared is because when you inject insulin into the first patient, sometimes there’s back pressure and body fluid can pass from the first person through the needle backward into the pen. However, the liquid could be a very small amount and it could be blood or it could be some other type of fluid. Then, when the second person uses the pen with the different needle, the insulin has essentially been contaminated by the first person and the fluid can pass from the first person to the second person. The base practice is to not share pens by different people. The CDC has a campaign right now to make that point. It’s called Sticking with Safety. They have information on their website about not sharing needles, not sharing pens, and if there are devices that have to be shared in some cases other than needles or pens, they explain how it can be done in the safest possible way.

David C. Klonoff

David C. Klonoff

I read the article on CNN and in other places, which said that 716 patients were possibly exposed to shared pens and if they were, those people might be at risk for developing hepatitis B or C, or even HIV. We hope that either they weren’t exposed or if they were exposed to body fluids, that the body fluids contained no virus or bloodborne diseases. The next step is to test these people to see if they are carriers of the disease and, depending on when they were possibly exposed, whether they already have the disease. This kind of outbreak has happened at other facilities and each time it has required a very thorough screening campaign, as well as a very thorough education campaign.

For more information:
David C. Klonoff, MD, FACP, Fellow AIMBE, is medical director at the Diabetes Research Institute in San Mateo, California. He can be reached at the Diabetes Research Institute, Mills-Peninsula Health Services, 100 South San Mateo Dr., Room 5147, San Mateo, California 94401; email:
Robert T. Schooley, MD, is a professor of medicine, Chief in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Academic Vice Chair in the Department of Medicine at The University of San Diego School of Medicine. Schooley can be reached at:

Disclosures: Klonoff reports consultancy for Sanofi-Aventis. Schooley is a member of scientific advisory boards for Gilead Sciences, GlobeImmune, Inhibitex, Johnson & Johnson, Monogram Biosciences, and Santaris. He has consulted for Merck.