Northern Ireland

2,000 NI patients in heart surgery infection alert

Heart surgery

Nearly 2,000 NI patients who had heart operations have been told they may have been exposed to an infection.

The Belfast Health and Social Care Trust has written to those who have had open-heart surgery since January 2013.

The letter warned of the risk of a rare bacterial infection linked to medical equipment.

In total, 28 cases have been reported in the UK and 15 people are known to have died from the infection before 2015.

Based on a briefing from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, the BBC understood that no-one from Northern Ireland was affected.

But a UK-wide investigation is looking at a possible link between Mycobacterium chimaera and a device used to heat and cool the blood.

The device is essential for certain types of cardiac surgery.

'Very low risk'

The Belfast Trust contacted patients who have undergone procedures for congenital heart disease, as well as those who have had heart valves repaired or replaced.

In a statement, the trust said the risk to patients where the heater/cooler units were used was "very low", adding that the infection could not spread from person to person.

It added that it was working closely with the Public Health Agency to monitor the situation.

Dr Philip Veal, a health protection consultant, said: "The risk is very low and there have been a small number of cases across the UK.

"The risk must be balanced against not having cardiac surgery which in many cases is life saving - so we would encourage patients to proceed with surgery as planned because risk is so small."

However, the bacterial infection is potentially serious and people can die if they are not treated so the Trust is stressing the need for increased awareness among those who have had cardiac surgery.

The symptoms include unexplained fevers and weight loss, increasing shortness of breath, night sweats, joint or muscle pain and nausea or vomiting or abdominal pain.

Patients affected may also be abnormally tired or experience pain or redness around the site of their surgery.

Symptoms

The symptoms can take a long time to appear and there is no screening test to see if patients will develop them in the future.

Treatments, including antibiotics, are available, but the sooner people are diagnosed the better the outcome.

A taskforce established by England's Public Health Agency in England in 2015 proposed a range of measures including enhanced cleaning and decontamination of units.

Any staff involved were notified and, according to the PHA, informed and educated about what was involved.

The trust statement said that as there were more common causes for the symptoms, there was "no need for patients to be alarmed or seek emergency treatment".

Instead, concerned patients who have had surgery since 2013 are advised to make an appointment with their GP if the symptoms do occur.

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