Rare hospital infection hitting heart patients


A killer ‘blood-eating’ bacterial infection that may have affected thousands of British heart patients has claimed seven more lives in the past year, The Mail on Sunday has learned.

The death toll from the hospital bug mycobacterium chimaera (MC), spread by contaminated heart surgery machines, continues to rise a year after the problem was exposed by this newspaper.

Meanwhile, devastated families of at least 17 other patients currently fighting the deadly infection are still waiting for answers.

The total number of recognised cases of the infection, which kills by ‘eating’ its victims’ red blood cells, rose from 26 in January 2017 to 39 by last November.

Paul Balen, of Freeths solicitors, who is representing 15 of the victims’ families, is about to issue the first set of proceedings against the manufacturers of the machine on behalf of the relatives of Alan Diplock, 65, from Sussex.

Inquests into the death in 2016 of Mr Diplock and a number of the others have concluded the contaminated machine were to blame.

Public Health England (PHE) will issue updated figures at the end of this month. However it has revealed that while most of the deaths are in adults, one of them involved a seven-year-old child.

‘The numbers being reported are very small and updating the figures takes time. Treatment [of MC] is not straightforward,’ a PHE spokesman said.

It is feared there will be yet more deaths because despite national alerts issued to almost 50,000 patients and more than 42,000 GPs after this newspaper’s report, families say many UK doctors have not received information about how to recognise or treat the deadly bug. Symptoms include feeling unusually tired, coughing and night sweats.

‘This is potentially very worrying,’ said Ben Bradshaw, a former Labour Health Minister and now a member of the backbench Health Select Committee.

‘The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency is meant to oversee the safety of medical devices. I will be writing to NHS England and to PHE to find out what exactly is now being done about this issue.’

Stricken patients have endured months of futile efforts to save their lives, involving simultaneous infusions of up to seven potent antibiotics which have themselves caused catastrophic side effects including multi-organ failure and deafness.

Carol Inkpen, 66, of Farnborough, Hampshire, whose 71-year-old retired lorry driver husband Michael died earlier this month, said treatment which began last March to try to get rid of the infection destroyed his liver and kidney function and left him deaf.

‘I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way he did,’ she said. ‘The doctors just didn’t know what to do to get rid of it.’

Michael had heart by-pass and valve replacement surgery at St. George’s Hospital in London in December 2013.

He had three years of good health before the spread of the bacteria resulted in it destroying the red cells in his blood.

‘He had countless blood transfusions and repeated procedures to drain off huge volumes of fluid accumulating in his stomach,’ said Carol.

‘At first he was determined to fight the infection but last November they told him he had a maximum of nine months to live, and he more or less gave up.’

The MC infection which killed Michael is believed to have come from a single strain which has contaminated 3T blood heater-cooler units made in Germany by a company called Sorin. These machines are used in open heart surgery as blood is channelled outside the body during operations.

Sorin was taken over by a British company called Liva Nova in 2015. There has been no response from the company’s lawyers since the scandal emerged.

There have also been unknown numbers of deaths in countries across Europe, Australia and the US. Yet while other European countries issued warnings to all doctors as long ago as 2012, Public Health England took the decision to try to keep the risk quiet.

Other identified MC victims to have died include Brian Smith, 73, from Coventry and Peter Hock, 68, from Weybridge, Surrey. Patricia Line, 67, from Birmingham, is still battling the infection.

A spokesman for St George’s Hospital said: ‘We immediately updated and improved cleaning and disinfection protocols to reduce the risk to our patients, and replaced all the cooler units with new models.

‘No further instances of this infection have been reported.’

 Case Study: Specialists we saw were mystified by the condition

Mike Spires, 73, a retired hotelier, from Worcestershire, had been turned away by dozens of specialists unable to identify his mystery condition until The Mail on Sunday report forced Public Health England (PHE) to alert patients and doctors last year.

Mike had been infected with the deadly bacteria during a heart valve replacement operation in 2014 at Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry.

His treatment to fight MC began last spring, but had no effect and he died in July last year. Mike’s distraught widow Marilyn, 68, says medics seemed unaware of the condition and its seriousness. ‘The letter from PHE said if we had any worries about infection we should ring NHS 111. But they didn’t know what we were talking about.’

Mr Spires’s son Philip, 41, said: ‘As soon as I saw the PHE letter I was certain that was what was wrong with Dad. He had virtually all of the symptoms – he was just so tired.

‘The letter said the risk was very low – one in 5,000 – but I read through the minutes of the hospital trust board meetings where Dad was treated and soon saw they had six cases the same year he was treated, which made the risk one in 100.’