Montreal

6 Quebec hospitals warn heart surgery patients of potential infection risk

The warnings come after the Montreal Heart Institute announced last week two patients of more than 8,000 who underwent cardiac surgery under cardiopulmonary bypass have been diagnosed with a related infection.

Possible bacteria contamination traced to heater-cooler system manufactured in Germany

Less than 1 per cent of patients who underwent cardiac surgery under cardiopulmonary bypass might be at risk for infection. (Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press)

Six Quebec hospitals are now taking the steps to contact more than 23,000 patients who have had open heart surgery since 2011 about a potential risk for infection.

The decision comes after the Montreal Heart Institute (MHI) announced last week that two patients out of more than 8,000 who underwent cardiac surgery under cardiopulmonary bypass have been diagnosed with a related infection.

It is a result of Mycobacterium chimaera that contaminated a heater-cooler system during its manufacturing in Germany, according to the institute.

While all devices have since been replaced at the MHI, they are still in use in the majority of hospitals in both Canada and the United States due to a supply problem, according to Radio-Canada.

​The contamination has been tied to 28 cases in the U.S. and machines were recalled in Canada in June.

The Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services estimates that less than one per cent of patients who underwent cardiac surgery under cardiopulmonary bypass might be at risk for infection.


Some facts on Mycobacterium chimaera

  • The risk of infection is very low: between 0.1 per cent and 1 per cent.
  • It is currently present in nature and rarely causes illness in healthy people.
  • It is not contagious.
  • It is treatable with antibiotics
  • Main symptoms include: fever, unexplained weight loss, muscle and joint pain, night sweats, fatigue.

​- Source: Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services


In a statement, the ministry said the risks of avoiding heart surgery are much greater than going ahead with it, and encouraged patients to discuss any concerns with their surgeons.

Other affected hospitals in Quebec include:

  • The Centre hospitalier de l'Universite de Montréal superhospital.
  • McGill University Health Centre.
  • The Centre hospitalier universitaire de Sainte-Justine.
  • The CHU de Québec - Université Laval.
  • The Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec.
  • The Hôpital de Chicoutimi.

Beyond Quebec hospitals, Toronto's University Health Centre has confirmed that one unit that has been pulled from its hospital after five years and was used with lung transplant patients. 

Spokeswoman Gillian Howard told CBC News the hospital is contacting around 40 patients the centre believes face a potential risk of infection.

'This is frightening'

Jean Longtin, the chief microbiologist for the laboratory at Quebec public health, said risks associated with the bacteria shouldn't dissuade people from having necessary heart surgery.

"The danger would be to give into panic and to no longer perform cardiac surgery that saves lives," he said.

Six hospitals, including the McGill University Health Centre, have started contacting patients about a potential risk for infection. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

But the Conseil pour la protection des malades, a Quebec organization that defends the rights of patients, says it is far from reassured and criticized the province for not having a way to quickly replace the possibly contaminated heater-cooler systems.

"This is frightening," said Paul Brunet, the president of the organization.

"We should be able to get appropriate and adequate machines and not having any problems of supplying of more machines when we need them."

Possible legal action

Doctors faced difficulties in diagnosing the two MHI patients who underwent heart surgery in March 2015 and later fell ill, according to a lawyer specializing in patients's rights.

"Several months later they experienced a lot of complications," Jean-Pierre Ménard said.

"It took a long time to make the diagnosis."

Both patients have recovered, but Ménard says the growing numbers of patients who are at risk of infection could lead to legal action.

"We are building this file presently," said Ménard. "We could have a base for malpractice against the manufacturer."​

With files from Jay Turnbull, Alison Northcott and Radio-Canada

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