Heart op patients should be told risk of deadly blood-eating bug

Tens of thousands of heart operation patients should be told they are at risk of deadly blood-eating bug, campaigners warn

  • NHS contacted 47,000 patients who had heart valve ops between 2013 and 2016
  • M.chimaera can lie in the body for up to 13 years – longer than previously thought
  • There were 33 deaths from 49 confirmed cases Health Security Agency said
  • Senior Coroner Alison Hewitt said spread is ‘higher’ than official 1 in 5000 figure

Tens of thousands of patients who had heart valve operations as far back as 2005 should be alerted they are at risk of a potentially deadly blood-eating bug, it was warned last night.

Five years ago, The Mail on Sunday 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 disturbing new evidence that the germ can lay dormant in the body for much longer than previously thought – up to 13 years and possibly more. Spotted early enough after M.chimaera becomes ‘invasive’, it can be successfully treated with antibiotics.

Tens of thousands of patients who had heart valve operations as far back as 2005 should be alerted they are at risk of a potentially deadly blood-eating bug

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 is 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 thought to have been prone to M.chimaera colonisation if not thoroughly sterilised.

Last night, solicitor Paul Balen of Freeths Solicitors, who has acted for many victims, said: ‘All patients who have undergone open heart surgery using LivaNova HCUs since 2005 should be warned 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 from 26 confirmed cases when this paper first highlighted the scandal.

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 is very likely to be higher’ than the official estimate of one from every 5,000 surgeries.

Public Health England dismissed her concerns and batted away her request for in-depth research. Yet the agency, since replaced by UKHSA, failed to say how it knew no cases were missed. An NHS England spokeswoman said it would review coronial findings and ‘take any further action required’.

LivaNova said: ‘The question of what caused an infection that appears long after surgery can be a complicated one, and connection to an aspect of the surgical environment can be uncertain.’

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