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Product safety lawyer calls for better awareness of rare infection linked to heater-coolers systems used in heart surgery

It has been reported that two men died as a result of contracting a rare infection from the heater-cooler units used in their heart surgeries.

Posted on 05 September 2019

Inquests into the deaths of two patients found that both died of multiple-organ failures as a result of infection they had acquired during cardiac surgery at Wythenshawe Hospital in Greater Manchester.

They had both undergone heart surgery which used heater-cooler units, machines used in hospitals to heat and cool patients’ blood temperature during heart surgery. The machines had a rare infection, mycobacterium chimaera, in the bends of the internal plastic pipes. The infection destroys red blood cells and was spread during the surgery due to the fans on the machinery. 

Both patients died at Wythenshawe Hospital years after their heart surgery as the symptoms of the infection can take a long time to develop.

Jill Paterson, a partner in the product liability and consumer law team, has called for greater awareness of symptoms of mycobacterium chimaera. 

In January 2019, Public Health England (PHE) said it was aware of 43 cases of heater-cooler units causing the infection. The risk of infection from heater-cooler units was first identified in around 2014 following reports of nontuberculous mycobacteria in the USA, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany in patients following heart surgery. 

Public Health England published an investigation into the risks in the UK in 2015

Dr Stephanie Thomas, a consultant microbiologist at Wythenshawe Hospital, said during the inquest that the infection was 'unknown prior to 2015' and was 'very difficult to diagnose'.

She confirmed five heater-cooler machines at the hospital were found to have the infection and that these had now been replaced by new machines.

According to the NHS, symptoms of mycobacterium chimaera infection include a fever, unexplained weight loss, cough or increasing shortness of breath, night sweats, joint or muscle pain, feeling sick or vomiting and feeling unusually tired.

Jill Paterson, a partner in the product liability and consumer law team, said:

“It is important that anyone who had undergone heart surgery who has been experiencing any of the symptoms of mycobacterium chimaera infection listed by the NHS should contact their hospital or surgeon for clinical advice as a matter of urgency.” 

The consumer law and product liability team at Leigh Day specialise in bringing claims against manufacturers of medical devices. If you or a member of your family has been affected by an infection following heart surgery involving a heater-cooler device, please call Jill Paterson on 020 7650 1309 or email jpaterson@leighday.co.uk