People who undergo acupuncture risk getting a bacterial or viral infection from contaminated needles and other materials used in the treatment, microbiologists say, but practitioners say infection-control practices in Canada are strong enough to prevent that from happening.
In an editorial in Friday’s British Medical Journal, researchers at the University of Hong Kong warn of a new syndrome called acupuncture mycobacteriosis that can occur when contaminated items such as cotton swabs or towels come into contact with the needle insertion point.
The infections can lead to abscesses and ulcers, the study’s authors warn.
“To prevent infections transmitted by acupuncture, infection control measures should be implemented, such as use of disposable needles, skin disinfection procedures and aseptic techniques,” microbiology Prof. Patrick Woo and his coauthors wrote.
“Stricter regulation and accreditation requirements are also needed,” they added.
Several Canadian acupuncture practitioners stressed needles are not reused in this country. Skin is disinfected carefully, aseptic technique is used, and towels, sheets and other materials are changed between patients and cleaned daily.
“In general, the chances of you getting an infection from your typical flu shot is probably higher than acupuncture,” because of the size of the needles and how far they go in, said Dennis Lee, dean of students at the Alberta College of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Worldwide, more than 50 cases of pus-producing bacterial infections associated with acupuncture have been described because of inadequate skin disinfection prior to treatment, the editorial said.
Most patients recover from these bacterial infections. In five to 10 per cent of the reported cases of bacterial infections, serious complications including joint destruction, organ failure, flesh-eating disease and paralysis occurred.
At least five outbreaks of hepatitis B virus infection have also been linked to acupuncture worldwide since the 1970s, the team said.
“Clinicians should … have a high index of suspicion, particularly for viral and mycobacterial infections transmitted by acupuncture because of their prolonged incubation periods, and they should alert health authorities about clusters of cases,” the authors concluded.
Acupuncture is one of the most widely practised forms of alternative medicine.