A number of people have died in the US after undergoing cardiac surgery

US news outlets have reported that at least eight people have died after undergoing open heart surgery.

WellSpan York Hospital has been in touch with more than a thousand patients who had the surgery between 1 October 2011 and 24 July 2015 to warn them that they may have been exposed to bacteria during the procedure.

The bacteria, nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM), is found in contaminated soil or water and does not pose a serious health risk to most people.  However, patients with compromised immune systems, or who are seriously ill, can face fever, weight loss, joint pain and rarely, death.

The bacteria is not infectious but is a slow-growing organism and can take a number of months to develop into an infection. It can also be difficult to diagnose unless patients and their medical advisors are aware of the possibility of the presence of NTM infection.

It is possible that the bacteria may have contaminated a heater cooler device that is used in heart surgery, although officials at the hospital have said that it is still not clear whether it was the surgery that caused the infection.

The US regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration, issued an adverse event report on 20.7.15 relating to the Sorin Heater Cooler 3T 120 Volt.  This followed the identification of an ‘unusual cluster of non-tuberculosis mycobacterium seen in pts post cardiothoracic surgery and recent reports from Europe indicating that aerosolization of this bacteria may be emitted from the sorin heater cooler unit’.

In the UK the MHRA issued a medical safety alert relating to heater-cooler devices used in cardiac surgery which urged all medical staff involved in cardiac surgery to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely when cleaning and disinfecting the devices.

Public Health England also published guidance on the use of heater cooler devices in June 2015: Mycobacterial infections associated with heater cooler units used in cardiothoracic surgery: advice for providers of cardiothoracic surgery.

The FDA has sent a team to the hospital in the US that has reported the heart surgery deaths to conduct an investigation.

Heart device lawyer Jill Paterson said:

“It is important that medical staff involved in cardiac surgery closely follow the advice issued by Public Health England on the use of heater cooler devices in heart surgery.

“Any patients who have had open heart surgery and who think they may have developed an NTM infection should speak to the GP or surgeon.”