08/28/2013 10:56 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Infection risk at New Brunswick hospital affects nearly 2,500 women

Nearly 2,500 women who underwent biopsies at the Miramichi Regional Hospital's colposcopy clinic in New Brunswick may be at risk of HIV and other infections because standard sterilizing procedures weren't always followed over a 14-year period, Horizon Health Network officials say.

The 2,497 current and former patients who had the procedure will receive a registered letter in the mail, offering that they have blood tests to check for HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B, said Dr. Gordon Dow, an infectious disease specialist.

He emphasized, however, that the risk of infection is "very, very small."

"I am very confident there will not be a single case of infection acquired through this process," Dow said during a news conference Wednesday.

A colposcopy is a diagnostic procedure used to closely examine a woman's cervix, vagina and vulva for signs of disease, such as cancer. It is often performed if a Pap test has come back with abnormal results.

Employee flagged sterilization issue

The forceps used during biopsies between May 1999 and May 24, 2013, were not always sterilized in accordance with the North American standard, which has been in place for more than 50 years, officials said.

In some cases, the instruments were put through a high-level disinfection process instead.

High-level disinfection destroys "99.99 per cent of blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV," said Dow.

“The estimated risk of contracting hepatitis B is 1 in 47,000 procedures; however, the risk of becoming ill is 1 in 156,000 procedures," he said.

“The risk of contracting hepatitis C or HIV is less than one in a million procedures when using high-level disinfection cleaning.”

Horizon Health Network president and CEO John McGarry said an employee flagged the issue and the process was corrected immediately.

McGarry said the problem started 14 years ago when patient volumes at the clinic grew and there weren't enough forceps for the number of patients seen during a day.

All the instruments would be sterilized the night before, but a few would have been "reprocessed" during the day to meet the demand, he said.

McGarry declined to identify who made that decision. "We're not considering disciplinary action at this time," he said.