A Seattle hospital said on Friday, June 17 that lapses in hepatitis B screening procedures may have possibly placed its dialysis patients at risk of blood infection.

Virginia Mason Hospital said that about 650 dialysis patients may have been exposed to hepatitis B over the past five years as a result of its staff being inconsistent in screening and isolating dialysis patients.

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that can spread through contact with body fluids such as semen and blood of infected individuals via sexual contact and sharing of medical equipment. The virus attacks the liver, potentially causing acute and chronic liver failure.

Hospital officials have yet to know if any patient diagnosed with hepatitis B has been treated in the three-bed dialysis unit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that patients who are found positive for hepatitis B get treatment in a private room away from other patients.

Hospital officials said they found no evidence that transmission of the disease happened in the facility. Public health officials likewise said that the risk of transmission is low but the hospital pushed through with contacting patients who were treated in its dialysis unit since 2011 to urge them to get tested for hepatitis B infection.

"The risk of exposure to hepatitis B was very low because of our other infection-control safeguards," said Virginia Mason Hospital's nephrology unit head Dr. Cyrus Cryst. "Out of an abundance of caution, we are informing patients of the situation, explaining there was a minimal risk of exposure for them and letting them know we are a ready resource for any questions they have. Patient safety is always our top priority."

Most chronic kidney disease dialysis patients are regularly screened for hepatitis B infection so they do not need to take special action.

During a news conference, Cryst acknowledged that the potential exposure of the hospital's patients stems from lapses in protocols and screening inconsistencies but assured that officials have worked to address these problems.

A survey conducted by the nonprofit organization Joint Commission, which accredits thousands of health care organizations and programs in the United States, alerted the hospital of screening inconsistencies, prompting an investigation. Virginia Mason then notified public health officials of the screening lapses late last month.

Nearly 800,000 people die each year because of hepatitis B-related complications such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. The CDC said that the best way to prevent the disease is to get vaccinated.

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