NEARLY 50,000 Britons are to be warned they may have picked up a potentially deadly bug from contaminated medical equipment during open heart surgery, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The alert follows the deaths of at least 15 patients from the bacteria, which can lie dormant for five years, while another nine are fighting for their lives.
Victims – said to be just the ‘tip of a much bigger iceberg’ – include a seven-year-old child, though health officials refuse to say if the youngster survived.
Last night, there were fears hundreds more people could have unknowingly developed deep-tissue infections caused by the bug, Mycobacterium chimaera, which ‘eats’ healthy blood cells. Victims have endured painful endocarditis – infection of the inner lining of the heart – and other life-threatening problems including abscesses on the aorta.
Health officials have known about the problem, which is treatable with antibiotics, since 2014, documents reveal.
But only now are they preparing to write to up to 47,000 patients who have undergone heart valve operations since January 2013 and could have been put at risk of infection.
Patients will be provided with a list of symptoms and told to see their doctor if they are concerned.
At least two bereaved families have embarked on legal action against the NHS amid claims the lives of their loved ones could have been saved had patients and staff been warned. The source of the infection is a type of machine used to heat and cool blood when it is circulated outside the body during heart surgery.
Studies show Mycobacterium chimaera – a common, slow-growing bug normally found in soil and water – can develop in the ‘heater-cooler’ units, if they are not thoroughly sterilised. It can then be dispersed in the air in tiny water droplets, landing on tissue exposed during open-heart surgery.
Almost all those known to have been affected were patients who underwent heart valve replacement or repair.
Twenty-six cases have now been confirmed by Public Health England in patients who underwent operations from 2007 to 2015. Of those 26, 15 have died, nine are still ill, and just two have fully recovered.
Two bereaved families taking legal action claimed NHS hospitals should not have used defective equipment, and staff failed in their ‘duty of candour’ to properly inform patients of the risks. They believe officials’ handling of the problem amounts to a cover-up.
Retired fisherman Alan Diplock died last July at the age of 65, three years after a heart valve replacement operation at Royal Sussex County Hospital, Brighton.
Mycobacterium was only identified as the culprit in June 2015. Mr Diplock battled it for a further 13 months till his death. His daughter Kerry-Anne Orakwusi said: ‘We want this issue highlighted so other people who have this kind of surgery know about the risk.’
Retired insurance broker Brian Smith, 73, died last August, exactly two years after valve replacement surgery at University Hospital Coventry. At his inquest last November, his family discovered five other heart patients at the same hospital had been infected by the same bug.
Clinical negligence expert Paul Balen, of Freeths Solicitors in Nottingham, said: ‘There’s no question: these 26 cases are just the tip of a much bigger iceberg – there could be hundreds who have died.’
Last night, NHS England and Public Health England issued a joint statement explaining the delay in notifying patients, saying: ‘It is important to remember that the risk of contracting this infection remains low. A balance needs to be struck between deriving benefit from notifying patients to that of causing undue alarm. We have been guided by the best clinical advice, as international knowledge and evidence about this infection has grown.’
UK-owned LivaNova, the firm that makes the Sorin 3T heater-cooler machines thought to pose the risk, said it introduced a revised disinfection process to new machines in August 2014 after the threat emerged.