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Australian doctor accused of infecting patients

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SYDNEY – An Australian doctor was charged Friday with endangering his patients' lives after police alleged he infected nearly 50 women with hepatitis C at an abortion clinic.

James Latham Peters, 61, who worked as an anesthesiologist at the Melbourne clinic, was charged with 54 counts each of conduct endangering life, negligently causing serious injury and recklessly causing serious injury. The most serious charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Peters was released on 250,000 Australian dollars ($267,000) bail when he appeared briefly in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday.

He was not required to enter pleas to the charges, which relate to 49 patients at the clinic who health officials say contracted the same strain of hepatitis C as Peters between 2008 and 2009.

Hepatitis C can cause serious liver problems, including cirrhosis and cancer. It is spread through the blood.

Police have not released details on how they believe the disease was transmitted. But Bram Alexander, a spokesman for the Victoria state Department of Health, said officials with the department closely investigated all the infection control procedures at the clinic and didn't find any problems with them.

"That's precisely why, back in early last year, we referred these matters to the police for further investigation — because our investigation could find no plausible reason as to why the infection took place," Alexander said.

Peters had his registration suspended in February 2010.

Under his bail conditions, Peters must not work in any medical- or health-related field and must not contact staff at a number of medical centers where he previously worked, including the abortion clinic. He was also required to surrender his passport.

Health officials tested more than 4,000 of Peters' patients during their investigation, and found 49 who were infected with a strain of the virus genetically linked to his.

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