Public healthThousands at risk from dirty syringes used in clinics, hospitals

Published 2 January 2013

U.S. health officials are still fighting a battle which was supposed to be over more than fifty years ago: dirty needles (the disposable syringe became widely available in the early 1960s); in the last eleven years, more than 150,000 patients nationwide were victims of unsafe injections, and two-thirds of those injections have been administered since 2008

Needles drawing from a contaminated vial infected at least seven // Source:

Earlier this year seven people arrived at a Delaware hospital with the same strains of drug-resistant MSRA infections. All seven patients received injections from the same orthopedic clinic in a 3-day span.

State health officials found that the clinic injected the patients with medication from a vial which was meant to be used just once. With each shot, the bacteria were injected to another patient.

In July more than 8,000 patients of an oral surgeon in Colorado were told to get tested for HIV after state health investigators discovered his office reused syringes to inject pain medication through patients’ IV lines. Six patients have tested positive for HIV, AIDS or hepatitis.

USA Today reports that health officials are now fighting what was supposed to have died more than 50 years ago: dirty needles.

In the last eleven years, more than 150,000 patients nationwide were victims of unsafe injections, and two-thirds of those have been administered since 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

USA Todaynotes that the needles have led to forty-nine disease outbreaks.

The majority of the hundreds of millions of injections administered yearly in hospitals, nursing homes clinics, and other health offices are conducted safely and without incident, but the few that are not have resulted in the spread of dangerous diseases. 

Some studies suggest that more than 5 percent of hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and doctors’ offices do not follow accepted safety standards when it comes to needles, which puts people at risk every day.

It’s a huge issue. … It makes us crazy,” Michael Bell, the CDC’s associate director for infection control told USA Today. “We’re trying to eliminate a range of harms in health care — high-level, complex challenges — and we look behind us and these basic, obvious, completely preventable problems are still occurring. … It really comes down to a matter of greed, ignorance or laziness.”

The true impact of these unsafe practices many never be known. Linking hepatitis and other illnesses to injections that may have occurred years before a patient shows symptoms is almost impossible.

Now several states have responded to injection-related disease outbreaks by passing laws that require better training on injection-safety measures.

In 2009 North Carolina began requiring all health care facilities to have designated staff trained in safe injection practices. In 2008 New York passed a law requiring the health department to issue new injection safety rules for all health care facilities, and last year Nevada required all health care professionals to certify their knowledge of safe injection practices as a condition of licensure.

The difference between federally required inspections and state regulation is that federal inspection are required if the health center performs surgery and is certified by Medicare as a surgical center. In most cases a pain management center or an oncology clinic would not be subjected to federal oversight. Instead, these facilities would be supervised by state medical boards, which typically do not conduct inspections.

Even facilities that perform surgeries can avoid federal oversight if they decide not to be certified by Medicare.

According to Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, states cannot put more responsibility on health departments without providing the resources to support the added work.

The state of Michigan has chosen a different method.

In 2010, the state started a law that brings felony charges to health care providers who “knowingly reuse recycle a single-use device” for any sort of injection. The penalty carries up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $50,000 or both.