The infections are caused by M. chimaera, a type of Non-Tuberculosis Mycobacterium (NTM) that is commonly found in soil and tap-water. M. chimaera is also commonly found in heater-cooler machines that hospitals use to keep patients warm during heart bypass surgeries.
Healthy people are not at risk, but a lot of people who had open-chest surgery may have this “ticking time bomb” lurking deep in their body. M. chimaera has been described as a blood-eating infection that kills by spreading to the blood, bone marrow, and organs. It can take up to 7 years to be diagnosed.
Hospitals have warned thousands of patients, but most patients who were actually exposed have no idea they are at risk. The symptoms are easily ignored and may not appear for years after surgery.
When symptoms do appear, they may include:
- Night sweats
- Muscle aches
- Weight loss
- Unexplained fever
- Flu-like illness
Lawyers are helping open-heart surgery patients with symptoms find out how to get tested for NTM infections and M. chimaera. One recent lawsuit was filed by a man with an infected heart valve who suffered a stroke.
Diagnosis is often delayed because special lab tests are needed to identify M. chimaera. Treatment involves 2 years of taking powerful antibiotics with a range of side effects, but without treatment, NTM infections can destroy a person’s health or cause death.
At least 28 deaths have been reported in the United States since 2006. Only a few hospitals have sent letters to patients, but M. chimaera has been found in heater-coolers at hospitals in Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, Iowa, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.
Heater-Cooler Units (HCUs) are machines that keep patients warm during open chest surgery. They have been used on over 2 million patients who had cardiopulmonary bypass operations in the U.S., or about 250,000 each year.
The machines use water to heat or cool the patient’s blood. Water never directly touches the patient, but it does evaporate and spray into the air in the operating room from a vent on the back of the machines. Any bacteria in the water also sprays into the air. If the bacteria lands inside the chest of a patient who is having surgery, it can cause deadly infections.
Evidence strongly suggests that most HCUs were contaminated in manufacturing facilities in Europe before they were shipped to hospitals all over the world. That means most people who had open-heart surgery in the U.S. since 2006 were likely exposed.
The overall risk is between 1 and 10 people out of every 1,000 people who have open-heart surgery at hospitals with contaminated heater-coolers, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Heart valve replacement surgeries or people with prosthetic implants have a higher risk of these infections.
While the LivaNova/Sorin Stöckert 3T heater-cooler device got most of the attention, it may be a general problem with other machines. In January 2017, a study in Denmark found Mycobacterial contamination in 86% of HCUs that were tested, including several machines manufactured by Maquet.