Health authorities and police are investigating allegations a cluster of patients of Melbourne's Croydon Day Surgery became infected with hepatitis C when James Latham Peters worked as an anaesthetist at the clinic over an 18 month period in 2008 and 2009.
The state's chief medical officer, John Carnie, said more than 1100 women who attended the clinic had been contacted for blood tests, with 44 so far testing positive to hepatitis C.
That contact was made after health authorities confirmed in April that 12 women who attended the Croydon Day Surgery became infected with hepatitis C, all of whom were linked directly to the clinic, and nine to the anaesthetist himself.
Since then, Dr Carnie said, 32 additional patients had tested positive to the virus and further genetic testing had linked 13 of those cases to the clinic.
"The more cases you find in this instance, it becomes more and more difficult to explain this by an accidental means," Dr Carnie said yesterday.
A spokesman for law firm Slater & Gordon said 30 patients of the Croydon Day Surgery had so far contacted the firm about compensation. It is understood letters of demand have been served on the clinic and Dr Peters. Slater & Gordon is yet to determine whether action will be taken against the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria.
Health Minister Daniel Andrews yesterday described the hepatitis C outbreak as "a very serious matter", but he defended the effectiveness of the safety checks within the state's health system.
"I believe this is not about system failure; this is about, it would seem, the appalling, totally inappropriate behaviour of one particular person," Mr Andrews said.
"It is difficult to know what went on in that clinic."
Dr Peters has not worked at the Croydon Day Surgery since last December, and was suspended by the Medical Practitioners Board on February 15. The alleged infections occurred between 2006 and last year.
Victoria Police established a taskforce to investigate allegations that the hepatitis C infections were linked to the surgery, after it received a request from the Department of Health in April.
No charges have been laid but police yesterday said in a statement: "Detectives are working to discover whether any criminal activity led to the spread of hepatitis C to patients at the facility."
Victoria Police said it was working closely with government and private agencies, but the investigation was likely to be a "long and involved" one.
Dr James Latham Peters was given a six-month suspended jail term in August 1996 after pleading guilty to 20 charges over providing his wife with a two-year non-stop supply of pethidine the Herald Sun reported.
Dr Peters voluntarily surrendered his medical registration but succeeded in having it restored within the past five years.
The Medical Practitioners Board is refusing to release details of Dr Peters' history, saying it must protect doctors' privacy.
It had placed him on a program for substance-abusing doctors, made him submit to drug tests for a year, and restricted his practice when he re-applied for registration. But the conditions were later removed.
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