Thousands may have been exposed to rare infection during heart surgery in Halifax

More than 4,000 Atlantic Canadians who underwent heart surgery at two Halifax hospitals are being warned they may have been exposed to a rare bacterial infection from contaminated medical equipment.

The province’s two health authorities said Monday the QEII Health Sciences Centre and the IWK Health Centre have found a link between a device used to heat and cool blood during cardiac surgeries to a bacterial infection caused by non-tuberculous mycobacteria or NTM.

It’s possible the equipment was exposed to the bacteria during manufacturing, the Nova Scotia Health Authority and the IWK Health Centre said in a joint news release.

“There is a slight possibility that contaminated water contained in these devices has been transferred through the air into operating rooms,” the release said.

No local reports of infections

There have been no reports of local infections and the risk is “very low, less than one per cent,” the release said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alerted doctors and hospitals to the same issue in mid-October. American officials linked the contamination to at least 28 cases, including four deaths.

Other hospitals in Canada have issued similar alerts and hospitals in Montreal diagnosed two patients with a related infection in October.

Infection may take months, years to develop

Health Canada says the bacteria are “typically not harmful” but can “cause infections in very ill patients, including those with compromised immune systems, and chronic diseases or health conditions.” After exposure in an operating room, infections may take months or even years to develop.

Symptoms may include:

  • unexplained and persistent night sweats
  • muscle aches
  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • fever  

Thousands receiving letters

The Nova Scotia Health Authority said it has sent a letter to 3,746 former patients from Nova Scotia, as well as 296 people from P.E.I., 20 people from New Brunswick and five from Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The authority said it has also reached out to 11 people in others parts of Canada and two people from the U.K.

The IWK sent letters to 146 people in Nova Scotia, 107 in New Brunswick, 16 in P.E.I. and 51 from Newfoundland and Labrador. Three patients were from other areas. 

Physicians are also being contacted about the situation.

People with concerns are being asked to call toll-free numbers at the Nova Scotia Health Authority (1-844-874-0122) or the IWK (1-855-0495-2273).

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CBC | Health News