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Exposure may put 5 at risk of hepatitis

Doctors are monitoring five patients who may have been exposed to hepatitis B while they received treatment at Boston Medical Center, the hospital said Saturday.

“Recently, we became aware that a small number of patients were potentially exposed to (the) hepatitis B virus and five patients are potentially at risk from the exposure,” said BMC spokeswoman Jennifer Watson. “We have communicated with these patients and are monitoring them closely. Additional measures have been put in place to avoid the possibility of a similar exposure in the future.”

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Hospital officials did not say how the patients might have been exposed.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is investigating the matter, David Kibbe, a spokesman for the agency, said Saturday night.

Hepatitis B attacks the liver and can last a few weeks or become a long-term, life-threatening ailment, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is spread through bodily fluids like blood, and symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, and joint pain.

Joan Cooper, 64, of Weymouth, said she was potentially exposed to hepatitis B while receiving dialysis treatment at BMC between March 13 and March 16. She said she suffers from kidney failure and needs dialysis to remove toxins from her blood.

“Thursday I received a phone call from Boston Medical Center that because one of the [dialysis] machines had not been cleaned properly after a patient with hepatitis B had used it, I was exposed along with other people to hepatitis B,” she said.

The hospital told Cooper she needed an injection of gamma globulin, a solution loaded with antibodies that could combat the virus, and BMC sent a person to her home on Friday to administer the shot, she said.

“Hopefully if the illness hasn’t taken hold, it should block it from taking hold,” she said.

Cooper said she received dialysis treatment on Saturday at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, where a doctor took a blood test to determine if she is infected with hepatitis B. The results may be available in about a week, she said.

The disease can take two forms: acute hepatitis B is a short-term illness, and chronic hepatitis B is a long-term ailment that emerges when the virus stays in a patient’s body, according to the CDC. Acute hepatitis B — which presents itself within the six-month period after a person is first exposed to the virus — can lead to chronic hepatitis B.

Between 800,000 and 1.4 million people in the United States suffer from chronic hepatitis B, which can lead to liver failure, liver cancer, and death, according to the CDC. The agency estimates that between 2,000 and 4,000 people die every year from liver disease related to hepatitis B.

Last year, about 30 patients in a cardiac catheterization unit at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire contracted hepatitis C, a different viral strain that also attacks the liver.

Those patients received injections from tainted needles that had been used by an infected technician who was swiping narcotics to feed a drug addiction.

Cooper said she has consulted with some doctors in recent days and feels confident that if she has the virus, it will be caught early. But she said she was shocked after learning about the potential exposure on Thursday.

“When they called me I was like stunned. I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing,” she said. “Even after I got off the phone, someone could have knocked me over with a feather.”

When she went for dialysis treatment on Saturday, Cooper said she was placed in an isolation room because she may have been exposed to hepatitis B, and doctors were especially careful to fully sterilize all dialysis machines with bleach.

“It’s like being a leper,” she said. “You kind of have to be contained.”

Cooper said she will not return to BMC for future treatment.

“Very much I feel betrayed,” she said. “And I’d really like to be able to talk to somebody and say, “How could you let this happen? How?’ ”

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com.
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