Women who gave birth or had an obstetric or gynaecological operation at 16 UK hospitals between 1975 and 2003 may have come into contact with a healthcare worker infected with hepatitis C.
While the risk of infection is small, the numbers affected likely to be few and the health consequences may not be particularly noticeable, concerned women should seek help and advice.
It has recently come to light that the healthcare worker transmitted the virus to two patients while working at Caerphilly District Miners Hospital in Wales from 1984 until they stopped working with patients in 2002.
Fewer than 400 women in England have so far been identified as having definitely or possibly had operations conducted by the affected healthcare worker. They will be contacted directly and blood tests can arranged at their GP practice.
Local health officials are looking at more than 3,000 former hospital patients’ notes and records from the Caerphilly District Miners Hospital (where the worker was employed for nearly 20 years). Around 200 former hospital patients from two other hospitals in Wales where the healthcare worker practised for a short time are also being contacted.
Those patients identified as exposed or possibly exposed to hepatitis C are being sent individual letters and asked to call a special confidential helpline, inviting them to attend a hospital clinic or, if they have moved away from the area, their GP for a blood test. Treatments for hepatitis C will be offered if necessary.
As it has been almost 30 years since the individual worked in hospitals in England, records of women who may be at risk are in some cases incomplete, for example if the hospital has been renamed or patients have moved around the country.
The person worked in obstetrics and gynaecology at several hospitals around the UK between 1975 and 2003. Potentially, women who gave birth or had obstetric/gynaecological operations at these hospitals may be at a small risk of infection. The hospitals in question are:
Public Health England says that there is only a small chance that a patient might acquire hepatitis C infection through surgical contact with an infected healthcare worker. The risk is very low as this can only occur if the healthcare worker is infectious and leads or assists in an operation or procedure on the patient. However, even in such circumstances transmission is very rare.
Around one in 250 adults in England have chronic hepatitis C infection and it does not automatically lead to health problems. Each year 10,000 people are newly infected.
Like most people who are infected with hepatitis C, the healthcare worker had no symptoms and was unaware of the infection until after they retired.
As soon as the risk of infection was recognised, and a transmission was confirmed, their occupational history was traced.
Only around one in four people will have symptoms during the first six months of a hepatitis C infection. The flu-like symptoms can include high temperature and feeling sick. Some may also experience jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).
In around three-quarters of people, the virus persists for many years (chronic hepatitis). Some may not notice symptoms but others will be greatly affected. Signs of chronic hepatitis include feeling tired all the time (with no benefit from sleep), headaches, depression, problems with short-term memory (“brain fog") and itchy skin.
Since 2007, all new NHS healthcare workers have been tested for hepatitis C.
Healthcare workers also have a professional duty to get tested if they consider themselves at risk of contracting a blood-borne virus.