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Old Kidney Machines Caused Deaths

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Whether this actually was the first time this event happened is a matter of some dispute. According to a report by writer Shawn Windsor in the Huntsville Times, a lawyer representing the injured patients charged in court papers that a similar event occurred in Japan several years before the 1996 outbreak. The attorney claimed that this event was brought to the attention of the product manufacturer and that the manufacturer failed to act. The manufacturer strenuously denied these allegations. The case eventually was settled out of court. Hutter and colleagues say the Japanese incident was caused by different toxins released by a different chemical process than that which occurred in the U.S. case.

Hutter says no one is to blame. "It was unfortunate. It could have happened to anybody at any hospital with the technology available at the time -- anybody who happened to have bad luck with the fibers from the factory with the bad conditions and the long storage time as well."

Some quarter of a million U.S. patients currently are undergoing this process, called hemodialysis. CDC surveillance shows that 43% of the centers at which they are treated use dialyzers with the same type of membrane used by the case patients. These dialyzers actually have a very good safety record, Hutter says. An additional 14% of centers use similar filters. Ironically, a recent study shows that products treated with the chemicals that broke down in the Alabama hospital are safer than untreated products.

  • In 1996, seven patients hooked up to artificial kidney machines in Alabama suffered severe headaches and lost their vision and hearing shortly after a filtering alarm sounded on their equipment. Two patients died within 48 hours and three more died in the next 13 months.
  • Investigators say the dialyzers were both very old and flawed, and can release substances that harm vision as well. However, they add that this situation is very rare and probably no one is at fault.
  • About 250,000 Americans get this treatment, called hemodialysis. The CDC says nearly half of the nation's kidney facilities use dialyzers with the same type of filters as the Alabama patients. Doctors note, however, the equipment has a very good safety record.
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