Important information for heart surgery patients


Auckland DHB is contacting all patients who have had open heart surgery in which foreign material has been implanted (such as an artificial heart valve) at Auckland City Hospital, Starship Hospital or MercyAscot in the past five years.

In a small number of cases, international regulators have found that the heater-cooler devices that are used to control the patient’s bodytemperature during these operations have been linked to infection caused by a bacteria commonly found in soil and water.

The risk of infection is very small (about 1 in 5000 open heart operations) but as a precautionary measure the approximately 5900 patients throughout New Zealand who have had these surgeries since 2013 are being contacted.

Patients who are part of this group will receive a letter explaining the situation and providing them with advice for the unlikely event that they become unwell. If you have had this sort of cardiac surgery at a hospital elsewhere in New Zealand, you will receive a letter from that DHB.

This is an international issue; so far one case of infection has been found in New Zealand and has been successfully treated. There is no risk to the family or friends of patients, or to the general public of contracting this infection from exposed patients.

Patients are advised to see their GP if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • Unexplained fevers or night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Pain in the chest, and/or swelling, redness or pus around the site of surgery
  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain

These symptoms can take months or years from the time of the operation to develop.

Heater-cooler devices used in New Zealand hospitals have been checked, and cleaned or replaced as needed.. A rigorous system is in place to ensure the chance of future patients being  exposed to the bacteria is significantly reduced.

Find out more:

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the bacteria called?

  • The bacteria is called Mycobacterium chimaera and it is common in our environment, including in soil and water. It very rarely causes infections in healthy people.

How can a patient become infected?

  • During some types of cardiac surgery, a machine called a heater-cooler device is used to keep a patient’s body at the right temperature during the operation.
  • The bacteria has been found in some of these heater-cooler devices, and in a very small number of cases this has caused an infection in the patient having surgery.
  • Mycobacterium chimaera infection cannot be spread from person-to-person so there is no risk to a patient’s family or friends or the general public.

What is the risk of becoming infected?  How many cases have there been in NZ?

  • The risk of infection from this bacterium is very small (about 1 in 5000 open heart  operations).
  • So far one case has been found in New Zealand and has been successfully treated.
  • Your surgical team will have explained that there is always a risk of infection associated with any cardiac surgery. Infections can occur many months or even several years after surgery.
  • Although the risk is extremely low, it is important we ensure our patients and their families are well informed as a precautionary measure.

What signs of infection should I look for?

Patients who receive a letter from us are advised to see their GP if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • Unexplained fevers or night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Pain in the chest, and/or swelling, redness or pus around the site of surgery
  • Increased shortness of breath
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or abdominal pain

These symptoms can take months or years from the time of the operation to develop.

What should I do if I think I (or my child) may be infected?

  • Patients experiencing any one or more of the symptoms above please see your primary health care provider / GP as soon as possible.
  • Please keep your letter handy in case you need to see your primary health care provider / GP about this issue in the future.
  • You can also call Healthline for advice on 0800 611 116.
  • You can also email us directly at heartsurgeryquestions@adhb.govt.nz

Should I (or my child) be tested for this infection?

  • No, testing for this infection is only useful in the event that you or your child develop the symptoms listed above. There is no test available to detect this infection before symptoms develop.
  • The best way to protect yourself (or your child) is to see your GP if you have any of the symptoms outlined above.
  • If you (or your child) feel well, there is nothing you need to do right now.

What has been done to prevent this issue?

  • We are working hard to ensure that this issue is prevented in the future.
  • Our Heater-cooler devices have been checked and have either been cleaned or replaced as needed. A rigorous system is in place, including regular laboratory monitoring, to ensure the chance of future patients being  exposed to the bacteria is significantly reduced.
  • This is a known international issue, not restricted to New Zealand, and we are sharing information with clinicians in other countries.

If I (or my child) have an infection, how would this be treated?

  • If an infection is confirmed your (or your child’s) clinical team will discuss treatment options. These may include the use of antibiotics and / or further surgery.
  • So far one case has been found in New Zealand and was successfully treated.

Am I (or my child) at risk with future surgeries?

  • . All cardiac surgery carries the risk of infection, but we have a rigorous system in place to ensure patients now and in the future have an even lower chance of being exposed to Mycobacterium chimaera bacteria than in the past..

Who can I talk to for further information?

  • The best person to talk to is your GP or primary care provider
  • We working closely with Healthline and you can also call them for advice on 0800 611 116 Healthline has interpreters available 24/7.
  • You can also email us directly at heartsurgeryquestions@adhb.govt.nz

Informational videos

Dr Josh Freeman explains where the infection originates (external link)

Dr Mark Edwards, explains the chances and symptoms of infection for heart patients (external link)

Dr Kirsten Finucane explains what the infection means for child heart patients (external link)

Lucy Smith talks about her reaction to the news as a parent  (external link)