Alberta heart patients warned of exposure risk to bacteria during surgery

Some 11,500 former heart-surgery patients in Alberta are being notified that they may have been in contact with a bacteria during surgery.

Risk of exposure to Mycobacterium chimaera 'extremely low,' AHS says

Former open-heart surgery patients at Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre, the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute and the Stollery Children’s Hospital may have been exposed to bacteria. (Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute)

Some 11,500 former heart-surgery patients in Alberta are being notified that they may have been in contact with a bacteria during surgery.

Alberta Health Services is calling the risk level of exposure to the bacteria "extremely low."

"There have been no infections in Alberta, but we are aware that two are under investigation in Quebec," said Dr. Mark Joffe, AHS Senior Medical Director, Infection, Prevention and Control. 

"I'm not aware of any other patients who have been affected anywhere else in Canada to this point."

Patients may have come into contact with Mycobacterium chimaera at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary after January 2013, and at Edmonton's Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute and Stollery Children's Hospital after January 2012, according to AHS.

The potential risk for M. chimaera infection is associated with certain heater-cooler units used during adult and pediatric open-heart surgery, reported the U.S. Federal Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as Health Canada.

The risk is that the bacteria can escape from the heater-cooler's exhaust system into the airflow of the operating room and infect the patient. 

Joffe said AHS is following manufacturers' instructions to clean and maintain the heater-cooler machines and that they'll continue to use them until the problem is fixed, which he expects to be within the next few months.

"These machines are absolutely critical. We can't perform open-heart surgery without using these machines, so at this point in time, the best strategy is to minimize the risk as much as we can," Joffe said.

M. chimaera infections can't be spread from person to person. Symptoms can be subtle, but will generally progress over several weeks and may include:

  • Fever
  • Unexplained, persistent and profuse night sweats
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Redness, heat or pus at the surgical incision site

Patients who have undergone open-heart surgery and are experiencing these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks should consult their doctor.

Individuals looking for more information can contact Health Link at 811.

Health authorities in other provinces including Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have issued similar warnings.