It was warned that tens of thousands of patients who had heart valve operations as far back as 2005 should be forewarned they’re at risk of a potentially lethal blood-eating bug.
Five years ago, a newspaper outlet revealed how the NHS was about to contact 47,000 patients who had heart valve operations between 2013 and 2016 after concerns about contaminated operating theatre equipment emerged.
Now survivors of Mycobacterium chimaera infection, victims’ families and their lawyers are calling for the alert to be extended to cover those operated on years earlier.
It follows unsettling new evidence that the germ can lay dormant in the body for much longer than once thought, up to 13 years and possibly more, but spotted early enough after M.chimaera becomes invasive, it can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but if left to fester the infection can spread, causing deep tissue abscesses and triggering deadly complications.
Up to 250,000 people have had heart surgery in Britain in which a potentially contaminated type of ‘heater-cooler unit’ (HCU) was used.
HCUs are needed to regulate the temperature of blood as it’s passed outside the body to be pumped with an artificial heart, while the organ is temporarily stopped. But one common type of HCU, the Sorin 3T made by firm LivaNova, is believed to be been prone to M.chimaera colonisation if not entirely sterilised.
Solicitor Paul Balen of Freeths Solicitors, who’s acted for many victims, said that all patients who’ve undergone open-heart surgery using LivaNova HCUs since 2005 should be alerted of this danger.
In January, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the earliest implicated surgery was performed in 2006. It states there have now been 33 deaths from 49 confirmed cases, up from 15 deaths and from 26 confirmed cases when it was first spotlighted.
But there are concerns these numbers seriously underestimate the true scale of the problem. Last year, City of London Senior Coroner Alison Hewitt wrote a report warning that the true incidence of invasive M.chimaera infection was very likely to be higher than the official estimate of one from every 5,000 surgeries.
Public Health England disregarded her concerns and batted away her request for in-depth research. Yet the agency, since superseded by UKHSA, failed to say how it knew no cases were overlooked. An NHS England spokeswoman said it would examine coronial findings and take any additional action needed.
If someone needs a replacement heart valve, indeed their life is in immediate danger, and telling them they have a slight chance of getting a bug if they have the operation won’t stop them from wanting to live, however, communication is the key here, and it’s a bug that if found early enough can be treated with antibiotics.
However, this wouldn’t be a problem and totally preventable if everything was sterilised properly, and it seems now with hospitals, it’s not what you go in with, it’s what you come out with.
Sadly when in hospital there are infections that people could catch, but if you’re having life-saving surgery, I don’t suppose that’s on your mind at the time and wouldn’t even worry about it.
But if antibiotics work for this bug if detected early, why doesn’t the hospital just give the patients the drug after surgery as a precaution. After all, preventing something is better than trying to cure it after the fact or am I missing something here? But then I guess that would be too sensible for the NHS.