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Deaths of Two Patients at National Institutes of Health From Contaminated Blood Should Be Investigated

Oct. 25, 2011 

Note: After Public Citizen issued this press release, the National Institutes of Health issued a statement saying that both patients “received platelets from an outside source that were labeled as suitable for transfusion.” After the patients developed bacterial sepsis, “NIH subsequently learned that the platelets were, in fact, contaminated. … We’re doing everything we can to make sure this never happens again.”
– Added Oct. 27

Deaths of Two Patients at National Institutes of Health From Contaminated Blood Should Be Investigated

Blood Platelets From Bethesda Naval Medical Center Were Found to Be Contaminated

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The deaths of two patients who received contaminated blood this summer at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should be immediately investigated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Citizen said today in a letter to the agencies. External departmental investigations, not limited to those already underway within NIH and the Naval Medical Center, are urgently needed.

According to a source, the two patients died after receiving transfusions of blood platelets that had come from the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, which reportedly knew they were contaminated. One patient died in August; the other in September. Both went into septic shock shortly after receiving the transfusions.

The platelets were contaminated with Morganella, Public Citizen has been told. Morganella is an especially dangerous bacterium that can injure or kill patients – particularly those with compromised immune systems. Both patients were undergoing chemotherapy, so their immune systems were compromised.

The medical center sent the platelets to NIH because NIH had run out, the source told Public Citizen. Whether the blood was labeled as contaminated when the medical center sent it to NIH is unclear.

“These deaths were entirely preventable had proper blood bank procedures been followed,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. “The platelets should have been destroyed. They should not have been given to any patient. The Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services should immediately find out what happened and ensure procedures are put in place so it doesn’t happen again.”

Public Citizen learned about the deaths from the NIH doctor who had treated one of the patients. He told the patient’s partner about the contamination; several weeks later, he was prohibited from seeing the patient and has not been told about the findings of the investigations that NIH and the medical center conducted into the deaths.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org.