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Hep C outbreak creates static

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By Marty Clear
3/30/2010 © Health News Florida

A popular and long-running Tampa radio program about alternative health has been silenced, at least temporarily, in the wake of reports about a hepatitis C outbreak that started at the host’s clinic.

Carol Roberts, a physician and director of Wellness Works in Brandon, has hosted “Alternative Medicine,” a call-in show on community radio station WMNF, every other Monday for more than a decade. But not yesterday. The station's news director confirmed today that the suspension was linked to the outbreak, or rather Roberts'  reaction to it.

Both Roberts and county epidemiologists had previously told Health News Florida that last year's outbreak was caused by a nurse, who was later fired. The outbreak involved eight confirmed cases of hepatitis C in clinic patients, in which preliminary tests have suggested a common source.

However, state health officials say the investigation was not centered just on the nurse. The outbreak was linked to faulty infection control practices at the clinic, according to aFeb. 2 letter to Wellness Works from Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department.

He faulted the clinic for “failure to follow standard procedures when preparing and administering intravenous therapy.” 

As for the nurse, state officials say Florida law prevents them from identifying her or even saying whether she is still involved in patient care somewhere else. 

Roberts’ show had been had aired several times after the first reports of the outbreak appeared in a local newspaper. What spurred the suspension, said Rob Lorei, WMNF’s news and public affairs director, was Roberts’ guest appearance on another WMNF program, “The Women’s Show,” on March 20. 

Roberts, he said, was supposed to talk about a book she has recently written and an upcoming promotional appearance. Instead her conversation with host Mary Glenney turned to the hepatitis C outbreak and the investigation of her clinic. 

“Being a non-commercial station, I think that’s problematic, to have a business owner come on and say, ‘My business is good,’ ” Lorei said. “We started talking about whether we would let any other business owner do that -- use the bulk of a half-hour show to defend their business against things that have appeared in the press -- and of course we wouldn’t.” 

Lorei said he did not think that either Roberts or Glenney intended to use the show to promote Wellness Works. But it was natural for the topic of the hepatitis C outbreak to come up, and Roberts ended up talking more about the outbreak and the investigation than about her book. 

But he also said that station officials weRe “concerned” because Roberts had not told them about the outbreak. The station learned about it through media reports, Lorei said. WMNF has not done its own story about the outbreak. 

Yesterday in the Roberts time slot WMNF aired a recorded show about alternative medicine that originated in Berkeley, Cal. Preliminary reports indicate that show was unpopular with listeners. 

Roberts’ next scheduled show is April 12. Lorei said the station is unsure what will air in that time slot. It may be the show from Berkeley, “it may be something else, or Carol may be back on,” he said. 

-- Marty Clear, an independent reporter in Tampa, can be reached by e-mail; Editor Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.