Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say 1,300 patients who had open-heart surgery at a central Pennsylvania hospital since 2011 may have been exposed to a bacterial infection that has killed 4 patients.
At least 8 patients treated at WellSpan York Hospital in York, Pennsylvania, have developed the bacterial infection, caused by nontuberculous mycobacterium, or NTM, from a medical device used during open-heart surgery. Four of those individuals have died, though it hasn’t been confirmed that the infection was the primary cause. 
Last week, WellSpan York Hospital notified the 1,300 patients that they may have been exposed to the bacteria linked to heart bypass machines with heater-cooler devices. Some of those who fell ill did so months and even years after surgery. Officials say the four deaths haven’t been directly linked to the machines, but they are believed to be a contributing factor. 
Patients who contracted the infection appear to have been treated at York Hospital between October 1, 2011 and July 24, 2015.
NTM is usually found in soil, water and tap water. Federal officials say the bacterium is not usually dangerous, but in rare cases it can cause infections in patients who have undergone invasive surgical procedures, particularly if they have weakened immune systems.
York Hospital’s infectious disease specialists were alerted to the issue when a study published in July in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases revealed that aerosolized NTM bacteria escaping from the heater-cooler devices during open-heart surgery could infect patients.
Shortly thereafter, WellSpan York Hospital staff contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Health after discovering that several of the facility’s open-heart surgery patients had developed NTM infections of the type identified in the study.
The department, in collaboration with the CDC, conducted an extensive review of WellSpan York Hospital’s open-heart surgery cases in the at-risk group to confirm that the bacteria had come from the heater-cooler devices and to take preventative measures.
“Based on our joint investigation, the CDC determined that the NTM infections identified in our patients are likely linked to the heater-cooler devices, paralleling the findings of the European study,” said Dr. R. Hal Baker, an internal medicine physician and WellSpan Health’s senior vice president for clinical improvement.
Healthcare providers have received safety advisories from the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notifying them of the potential link between the heater-cooler devices and NTM and NTM infections in open-heart surgery patients.
WellSpan York Hospital has specified that the infections have affected only 1% of their patient population, and that patients who had other, noninvasive heart procedures – such as stents, pacemakers, defibrillators and ablations – are not at risk. 
NTM is not contagious and most infections can be successfully treated.
The hospital has been in touch with area doctors, providing updates on the situation and guiding them on how to monitor and care for patients who may have been exposed to the bacteria. On its website, the hospital encourages open-heart surgery patients to talk to their primary care physician to address any symptoms – including fever, pain, redness, heat, or pus around a surgical incision; night sweats, joint pain, muscle pain, and fatigue – that might be associated with possible NTM infections.
This is far from the first time that medical equipment has been linked to potentially deadly infections. In August, duodenoscopes, devices inserted into a patient’s throat to diagnose and treat gallstones and digestive tract issues, were linked to a superbug outbreak at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. The contaminated duodenoscopes have infected patients all over the country, some fatally.
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