Authors: Carmen Cox
(WASHINGTON) -- The federal government should investigate the deaths of two cancer patients at the National Institutes of Health who died after they received transfusions of blood that a military blood bank deemed contaminated, a public advocacy group said Tuesday.
Internal investigations by the NIH and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, both in Bethesda, Md., "are not adequate to remedy this serious problem," Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
In an afternoon interview, Wolfe said he urged the two cabinet secretaries to have their agencies determine how infected blood products could have reached the NIH and ultimately killed patients. Without "an immediate external investigation," other patients at the military hospital, the NIH "and possibly military personnel in the field, may be exposed to these entirely preventable risks," his letter said.
The investigations need to begin "quickly, to make sure they've identified exactly where the problem is, and most important, they've remedied it," Wolfe said.
Wolfe, whose work at the NIH decades ago involved platelets, the blood components that transmitted deadly infections to both patients, called it "inconceivable" that they died from tainted blood, which should never have left the blood bank except as medical waste. "The best way of ensuring that infected blood or blood components (never gets used) is to get rid of them."
In a statement released early Tuesday evening, NIH spokesman John Burklow said the NIH was "deeply saddened by the deaths of two patients who were participants in clinical research at the NIH Clinical Center."
Both patients received platelets "from an outside source that were labeled as suitable for transfusion," but developed bacterial sepsis. After the NIH learned the platelets were contaminated, "the patients and their families were informed, and every effort was made to treat their infections. We're doing everything we can to make sure this never happens again."
In addition to requesting immediate investigations, Wolfe said he also asked that inspectors general at both agencies undertake longer-term investigations to make sure the problem doesn't happen again.
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