A suspected outbreak of nontuberculous mycobacterium, also known at NTM, may be linked to the deaths of four patients at WellSpan York Hospital in Pennsylvania. Hospital staff estimate that roughly 1,300 open-heart surgery patients may have been exposed the bacteria, eight of whom have so far contracted infection. Since all four of the patients had underlying medical conditions, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is still not officially attributing their deaths to the infection, although the hospital has admitted that it was a contributing factor. This is the second hospital in Pennsylvania in recent months to be associated with a deadly infection.
NTM naturally occurs in water and soil, and sometimes in tap water. It usually does not make people ill, but people with weakened immune systems, like those recovering from surgery, may be at risk. Inhaling the bacteria can result in a serious pulmonary illness that could take up to a year to cure with antibiotics.
According to a study published in July by the Clinical Infectious Diseases medical journal, heating and cooling devices used during surgery to monitor the body temperature of a patient may aid in the spread of bacteria. In light of the information provided by the study, the hospital has now replaced all of these devices with new equipment and are adhering to meticulous usage and cleaning standards, including not using tap water, pointing vents away from the surgical area, and sampling water and air for evidence of contamination.
The hospital is contacting all open-heart surgery patients who had their procedures between October 2011 through July 2015 to warn them of the potential risk of infection. The hospital is working with the CDC to ensure that all measures are being taken to prevent further contamination.
The CDC advises all patients who have undergone heart surgery within the time frame listed above to contact their doctor immediately if they are experiencing any combination of the following symptoms:
- Pain, redness, pus, or heat around the area of the incision
- Night sweats
- Muscle or joint pain
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