Veterans face HIV risk from hospital pumps

At the center of the fears are water pumps that are regularly used during colonoscopies and gastrointestinal procedures, said John Vara, the Miami VA's chief of staff. The hospital discovered March 4 that the pumps -- which are attached to the tubes used in the procedures -- were being rinsed but not disinfected. This, Vara said, creates the slight chance that back-flow from the pumps could lead to serious or potentially deadly infections.

The pumps do not come into direct contact with the patient, Vara said. Though the risk of infection is low, he added that ``any risk is unacceptable.''

Colonoscopies -- the visual inspection of the colon through a tube -- and other gastrointestinal tests are regularly performed at the VA. About 3,260 veterans underwent the procedures, primarily colonoscopies, involving this type of water pump since May 2004.

The VA has sent letters to about 2,500 of the veterans, who are still in the area, urging them to get blood tests.

Officials were trying to locate the other 700.

The medical center notified U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, Monday morning. After sending letters to Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki and Inspector General George Opfer, Meek said he was startled to learn that the situation in Miami was not unique.

In February, about 6,400 veterans at the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., were urged to get blood tests after the VA discovered there had been improper handling of equipment used for colonoscopies.

And in Augusta, Ga., more than 1,800 veterans were notified that instruments used to examine the ear, nose and throat had not been properly disinfected.

None of these incidents is known to have caused infection, but such revelations can lead veterans to distrust the medical system, said David Williams, a retired Marine who lives in Miami Springs.

''I've already served in Vietnam and have had to fight over my benefits,'' said Williams, 64, who underwent a procedure using the water pump at the VA last year. ``And now, here comes this mess on top of that. Boy, oh, boy, what's going to happen next before someone realizes that they have made more mistakes?''

The discovery of the improper cleanings is the result of a national program to standardize medical procedures across VA hospitals, Jim Benson, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told The Miami Herald. The program was known as ``Step-Up.''

After learning of the problem, three South Florida congressmen encouraged the VA to step up even more. Meek asked the Miami VA to call and knock on doors of veterans who had undergone the procedures.

''It's the least they could do for men and women in uniform,'' Meek said.

Calling the situation ''outrageous and unacceptable,'' Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, asked for an immediate investigation into why proper medical procedures were not followed.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said ``all necessary action should be taken to ensure that all veterans are made whole and this disaster never repeats itself.''

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