Federal health officials are warning the public that many patients who have had open-heart surgery over the past several years may have been exposed to a deadly bacterial infection that has been linked to one of the instruments used during their operations.
Although it rarely happens, these infections may cause serious illness or even death. The infection is specifically dangerous due to it being hard to detect with symptoms not showing up until months after the operation.
The instrument believed to be the cause of these infections is a piece of medical equipment known as a heater-cooler unit and it is an important part of life-saving surgeries. The unit maintains the patient’s organs and circulating blood at a specific temperature throughout the operation. Most of these procedures use a German-made model and it is this model that has been connected to the infections.
The bacteria that is the cause of these infections, known as nontuberculous mycobacterium, or NTM, is commonly found in nature and does not usually cause harm, but it has been known to cause infections in patients who have had invasive procedures and those who have weakened immune systems.
Symptoms of the infection are often common symptoms of any infection, therefore diagnosis can be overlooked. The delayed treatment causes the infection to be more difficult to treat. Once identified, the treatment consists of a specific antibiotic combination because typical antibiotics are not effective against the slow-growing germ.
Hospitals have been notified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration about the probable link between the machines and infection. The equipment does not come into contact with the patient or the patient’s blood. The device contains a water reservoir which bacteria can grow in. During operation, the water can evaporate release into the air of the operating room and then can enter a patient’s surgical opening.
The CDC and FDA say the risk of these infections is significantly lower than the more common surgical infections. Compared to the risks faced by someone who may be on the verge of a massive heart attack or has an aneurysm that is about to rupture, the infection risk practically null, but the CDC wants any patients with post-surgical symptoms to be aware that a possible NTM infection may be the culprit.