Nfld. & Labrador

Eastern Health prepares for calls after infection alert to heart patients

The health authority says it can take years for an infection to develop if a patient was exposed to a bacteria from a blood cooling machine during open heart surgery.

Symptoms like the flu, but last a lot longer

Eastern Health says it went back four years to contact patients because the bacteria can take a long time to cause infection. (CBC)

Eastern Health is bracing for calls after issuing an alert to cardiac patients about the risk of infection after open heart surgery.

"I'm expecting to get a lot of calls from physicians," said Dr. Natalie Bridger, Eastern Health's clinical chief of infection prevention and control, on Friday.

Bridger spoke to CBC Radio's Central Morning Show a day after the health authority alerted patients about a potential risk related to bacteria in a now re-called heater/cooler system used during surgery.

This has been an extremely rare occurrence around the world, but because we know about it, we felt it was prudent to let people and doctors know.- Dr. Natalie Bridger

About 2,500 patients who had heart surgery dating back to 2012 are being personally notified and given a phone number to call if their family doctor can't address their concerns.

Bridger said the bacteria was found in air bubbles in the blood cooling machine, and has been linked to two cases in Canada — both in Quebec.

"This is something that can show up a few years down the road," she said, which is why Eastern Health is notifying patients who had surgery four years ago.

A lot like the flu

"This has been an extremely rare occurrence around the world, but because we know about it, we felt it was prudent to let people and doctors know."

Dr. Natalie Bridger says people are much more likely to have the flu if they develop symptoms such as fever, fatigue and muscle pain. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The fact that the alert comes with the advent of flu season is "a little bit tricky," said Bridger.

"You might have noticed that some of the symptoms kind of overlap with the flu a little bit — fever, feeling unwell, muscle aches and pains, that sort of thing — which, honestly is much more likely to be caused by the flu this time of year than this rare thing."

The Quebec patients were unwell "for a very, very, very long time," she said.

Bridger said anyone with concerns should talk to their doctor. They can also call the numbers set up by Eastern Health, (709) 752-5252 or toll-free at 1-877-720-2323.

With files from the Central Morning Show

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