The Menacing Mycobacterium

Columbia’s newspaper, The State, has reported that seven – and maybe more – people suffered serious infections after they were treated at University Specialty Clinics for orthopedic problems. University Specialty Clinics is staffed by doctors from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia and has nearly 200 doctors in 35 specialties.

Although the infected patients were treated in 2012 or 2013, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has stonewalled, refusing to release information about the problem.

The problem was mycobacteria, some forms of which cause tuberculosis and leprosy. But the particular form in question at the University Specialty Clinics is mycobacterium abscessus, in a group of environmental mycobacteria found in water, soil, and dust. It can also contaminate medications and products such as medical devices and syringes. According to the National Institutes of Health, the prevalence of nontuberculous mycobacteria has increased, and so it is no surprise that we are hearing increasingly about instances of infections acquired in a healthcare setting.

How did the USC infections occur? The State tells us that one woman’s infection developed after she had a cortisone shot for a knee problem. It was so severe that she wound up being hospitalized 10 times and having seven surgeries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people “who receive injections without appropriate skin disinfection may be at risk for infection by M. abscessus.” As this victim’s experience illustrates, the mycobacterium abscessus organism is resistant to commonly used antibiotics. For patients with pre-existing respiratory conditions, a mycobacterial infection can lead to chronic lung diseases.

Some mycobacterium abscessus infections have been associated with the use of alternative therapies. In the mid ‘90s, an injectable product claiming to contain adrenal cortex extract (ACE) infected 87 people because one distributor’s medication had been contaminated when manufactured under non-sterile conditions in a Florida lab. Some patients required drainage of the infected site, surgical excision and plastic surgery.

A study done after the ACE outbreak reported mycobacterium infections resulting from cardiac surgery, cosmetic surgery, podiatric procedures, invasive procedures to improve hearing, and dialysis. It also cited a large outbreak in Colombia (not Columbia) when 350 patients were infected by injections of lidocaine from multi-dose vials. A cluster of infections also occurred in a Texas clinic when nurses giving allergy shots did not properly prepare the skin before injection.

Patients who develop any of the following symptoms after receiving an injection should see their doctor immediately:

  • Site of injection becomes red, warm, and tender to the touch
  • Tissue is swollen and/or painful
  • Area develops boils or pus-filled blisters
  • Patient has fever, chills, muscle aches, and a general feeling of illness.

To make a definite diagnosis, the doctor must take a sample of the discharge or biopsy the infected area and send it to a lab for analysis.

Because many bacterial abscesses occur as a result of improper procedures in healthcare settings, a patient who has been the victim of a medical provider’s negligence may wish to file a lawsuit to recover damages which can help pay for the pain they suffer and lengthy treatment they may require. As Columbia medical malpractice lawyers, we at The Louthian Law Firm know where to start and how to proceed in order to arrive at a just conclusion for patients who were harmed by those they trusted to help them become well. Call us at (803) 454-1200.