An Alberta patient who received open heart surgery about two years ago has been diagnosed with a slow-developing, though still dangerous, bacterial infection linked to faulty equipment used during the procedure.
Alberta Health Services announced the case of Mycobacterium chimaera on Tuesday, believed to be the province’s first such infection related to cardiac surgery.
The health authority said the case came to their attention following an announcement last December to warn patients about the potential risk of exposure.
AHS sent letters to approximately 11,500 people who had open-heart surgery in either Edmonton and Calgary sometime in the last five years, asking them to check for symptoms such as fever, night sweats, weight loss and heat or pus at the site of the surgical incision.
“The individual in question did develop some of those symptoms and then came forward to the health-care provider and ultimately came under investigation for this particular infection,” said Dr. Mark Joffe, AHS's senior medical director of infection prevention and control.
Citing privacy concerns, the health authority would not disclose the patient’s age, gender or location, but did say the individual was receiving treatment and responding well so far.
Numerous jurisdictions around the world that perform open heart surgery have been diagnosing infections, though the only other cases recorded in Canada have been in Quebec.
AHS said in December the risk of infection for cardiac patients was about one in 1,000, but news of the confirmed case has caused the health authority to change those odds.
The risk is now listed as between one in 100 and one in 1,000, meaning there is a greater possibility more cases could be identified in Alberta.
The risk stems from a design flaw in the exhaust system of heater-cooler units that are required during cardiac surgeries to keep a patient's blood warm.
AHS still uses them, but has implemented extra safeguards.
Joffe said AHS has considered replacing the equipment, but there is a global shortage of such devices. He said the manufacturer has apparently come up with a fix, but that must first pass a licensing process before it can be deployed.
Joffe described Mycobacterium chimaera as a “very serious infection” that can occasionally lead to death, in part because its victims typically have underlying heart issues. Infections are gradual but can persist for weeks and months.
The illness is treatable with a combination of medications over a long period of time, though sometimes repeat surgeries are also required.