More than 10,000 Veterans Affairs (VA) patients who have received colonoscopies in the past six years may have been exposed to infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis B and C, according to the Associated Press. (Hat tip to ProMEDmail.) Unsanitary equipment at three VA facilities (in Augusta, Ga., Miami, Fl. and Murfreesboro, Tenn.) has prompted officials to notify patients about the potential risk.

The procedure, which allows doctors to examine the large intestine and portions of the small intestine via a tiny video camera attached to a flexible tube, is a diagnostic exam routinely recommended for people 50 years of age and older to detect tumors or polyps that might turn malignant. The three facilities in question have notified patients from as far back as 2003 to get blood tests. The Miami chapter of the 2.2-million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, is advising members who received colonoscopies at any VA clinic to get tested, the Miami Herald reports.

In an email to the AP, the VA said that the facilities – or at least the one in Murfreesboro – ignored instructions from manufacturers of the tubes attached to scopes to clean them between uses and, instead, only cleaned them once a day. Although the tubes may not have had direct bodily contact, they, along with a faulty valve, could have exposed patients to infected body fluids from others. As of March 27, 10 patients from that facility had tested positive for hepatitis B or C, reports the AP. Neither of the other two VA clinics reported any positive cases of infections, but the Miami Herald notes that colonoscopies had been suspended at the Miami facility.

A 2008 study found that although the common procedure reduced the number of deaths by 67 percent from tumors in the large intestine, it hasn’t decreased the number of people who die from tumors tucked deep into the right side of the colon. Colorectal cancer is the third most common form in the U.S. and led to nearly 50,000 deaths in the U.S. last year, according to the American Cancer Society. If caught early on, the cancer can often be treated effectively with surgery.

Image of a colonoscope courtesy of Gilo 1969 via Wikimedia Commons