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Acupuncture infections more widespread say experts

Call for tighter infection guidelines, but UK acupuncture body says patients are fully protected
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith
accupuncture proceedure

19th March 2010 - Reported outbreaks of infections caused by acupuncture may be “the tip of the iceberg” of a globally emerging problem, according to a team of microbiologists.

Professor Patrick Woo and colleagues from the University of Hong Kong are calling for funding to ensure a proper set of infection control guidelines are in place.

The principle of acupuncture is that, by inserting and manipulating very fine needles into specific points of the body, the free flow of Qi - or energy - can be re-established and natural healing responses triggered.

In an editorial in the latest edition of the BMJ, Woo argues that acupuncture may pose risks to patients as needles are inserted up to several centimetres beneath the skin.

Infection related deaths

He writes that there have been about 50 cases reported globally of infections caused by failure to disinfect the skin properly. While most patients recover from infections, says Woo, “five to 10% died of the infections and at least another 10% had serious consequences such as joint destruction, paraplegia, necrotising fasciitis, and multiorgan failure”.

Woo says that, apart from the risk of bacterial infections, people having acupuncture could contract the hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses as well as put themselves at risk of HIV infection.

New 21st century threat

The Hong Kong team add that in the 21st century a new clinical syndrome has emerged - acupuncture mycobacteriosis. This, they say, is an infection caused by mycobacteria that rapidly grow around the acupuncture insertion point as a result of contaminated cotton wool swabs, towels and hot-pack covers. The infection eventually leads to large abscesses and ulcers.

Woo writes that there have been two large outbreaks of mycobacteria associated with acupuncture, which affected more than 70 patients. However, he adds that acupuncture related infections are underdiagnosed and “case reports and outbreaks of acupuncture transmitted infections may be the tip of the iceberg”.

The authors conclude that “to prevent infections transmitted by acupuncture, infection control measures should be implemented, such as use of disposable needles, skin disinfection procedures, and aseptic techniques. Stricter regulation and accreditation requirements are also needed.”

UK patients “safe”

Ulrike Wirth, Safe Practice Officer with the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC), emails us to reassure patients in the UK that preventing any infection “remains the highest priority for the BAcC, and it maintains constant vigilance to ensure that the codes which govern its members' work are up to date and effective”

The BAcC, which represents around 3,000 acupuncture practitioners, says its members are bound by a Code of Safe Practice which sets benchmark standards for best practice in acupuncture.

“The BAcC is well aware of the research featured in the BMJ, first reported some years ago,” says Wirth. “It remains confident that its own Code of Safe Practice, drawn up in consultation with Professor Norman Noah, the UK's leading authority on skin piercing and hygienic procedure, fully protect any patient of a BAcC member from risks of this nature and is not aware of any infection of this type having been reported in the UK.

Reviewed on March 19, 2010

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