Hepatitis infections blamed on incompetent medical board

The "complete incompetence" of Victoria's former medical practitioners board allowed drug addicted anaesthetist James Latham Peters to infect 55 women with hepatitis C, a court has heard.

Peters, 63, has pleaded guilty to 55 counts of negligently causing serious injury to the female patients by infecting them with the virus between June 2008 and November 2009.

Peters, who had a history of drug abuse and drug convictions, injected himself with pre-filled syringes of fentanyl — an opioid used in general anaesthesia — in theatre at Croydon Day Surgery, before administering the remaining drug to the patients as they underwent pregnancy terminations.

His pre-sentence plea hearing in Victoria's Supreme Court on Monday heard that while the now-deregistered anaesthetist had told the board as early as 1996 about his addiction to fentanyl and pethidine in a letter requesting he be suspended from practising as a medical professional, he did not inform them that he had contracted hepatitis c after he was diagnosed in 1997.

This was despite the health department being notified in accordance with infectious diseases laws that a man with the same name and age had contracted hepatitis c.

Chief Crown prosecutor Gavin Silbert, SC, told the court that the medical board showed "complete incompetence" in its monitoring of Peters after he was allowed to return to work under what was ultimately "useless" supervision.

Mr Silbert said the board had "ultimately placed the Victorian public at risk".

He told the hearing the incidence of drug addictions in medical practitioners was above the average of the rest of the population and was even higher among anaesthetists.

"Box Hill Hospital was, at the time the prisoner worked there, staffed almost entirely by anaesthetists who were recovering from major drug addiction," he told the court.

Mr Silbert said the prosecution had only been able to find three other similar "clusters" of hepatitis C outbreaks around the world. In Spain, 275 patients had been infected between 1988 and 1997. In another cluster, 30 patients in the United States had been infected at the same place last year, followed by another 18 in a separate cluster in Denver, Colorado.

Mr Silbert said being infected by Peters had had "tragic" consequences for the victims.

As many as 10 women had refused to speak to police about contracting the disease at the clinic for fear that their partners would find out about pregnancy terminations, he said.

Several others have not disclosed to their partners that they had hepatitis c or how they got it.

Mr Silbert said that while there had been advances in treatment of the disease, the women would have to live with a "ticking time bomb" over the next 40 years to see whether they developed potentially fatal, related medical conditions such as sclerosis or cancer.

The plea hearing, before Justice Terry Forrest, continues.

This story Hepatitis infections blamed on incompetent medical board first appeared on The Age.