A machine used in open-heart surgery in New Zealand may have exposed a few patients to a potentially deadly bacterial infection.

The Ministry of Health, through DHBs, has sent out letters to nearly 6000 patients who have been through open-heart surgery requiring the use of the prosthetic material, informing them the machine could have been contaminated.

The letter covers the risks, symptoms of infection and provides details of who to contact if concerned.

The device is a machine known as a heater-cooler, used in many open-heart surgeries to regulate blood temperature.

In 2015 it was discovered the water in some of the machines could be contaminated with the bacteria Mycobacterium chimaera. Although the water does not normally come into contact with patients, if aerosolised it could find its way into the patient’s body.

The bacteria is commonly found in water and soil and does not normally cause problems, but in rare cases an infection can prove fatal for patients.

One suspected case has been treated in New Zealand, with around 120 cases identified worldwide. Infections can take as long as five years to show up.

Some 1200 of the letters were sent to the families of children who had had open-heart surgery in New Zealand.

Heart Kids chief executive Rob Lutter said the Ministry had known of the threat since 2015 but had waited until a patient was infected before informing all patients there was a problem.

Heart Kids NZ was “extremely disappointed” it had taken so long for the Ministry of Health to release information, the organisation said in a statement.

“While we understand there is only a very small chance of infection, about 1 in 5000, it’s unacceptable that patients were not informed of this risk earlier. We’re also very disappointed that it took the infection of a patient for the MOH to act,” Lutter said.

Lutter said the risk of being infected was very low but the Ministry could have handled the situation better.

“We would like to know why the Ministry withheld this information for more than two years. We believe the MOH still does not inform patients pre-surgery of the infection risk, and we think this practice should change immediately.

“The Ministry has a duty of care to inform all patients of risks and considering this machine is still in use, then this must be spelt out,” he said.

The Ministry of Health has been asked for comment.

Source: NZ Herald

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