March 19, 2010

Experts Warn of Acupuncture-Related Infections

Acupuncture might be frequently used for pain relief and relaxation therapy, but experts now warn that the practice could result in infection due to unsafe, unsanitary practices.

In a March 18 editorial in the BMJ medical journal, a team of microbiologists at the University of Hong Kong, led by Patrick Woo, claim that bacterial infection, hepatitis B and C, and even the HIV virus could be spread through the careless use of contaminated needles or other paraphernalia.

Woo and his associates are calling for health organizations to begin enforcing oversight of the traditional Chinese practice, writing: "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."

As acupuncture has gained popularity worldwide due to its alleged benefits for treating constipation, arthritis, obesity, and other health related issues, health concerns have also increased, states the Woo-led research team. Among those is a new disorder known as acupuncture mycobacteriosis.

Acupuncture mycobacteriosis "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 BMJ editorial states.

More than 50 cases of the new infection have been reported worldwide to date, which in some cases can result in organ failure, joint problems, possible paralysis, according to Woo and his team.

"There is a long incubation period but the infection usually leads to large abscesses and ulcers," they write. "In most cases ... bacteria were transmitted from the patient's skin flora or the environment because of inadequate skin disinfection before acupuncture."

While the BMJ commentary states that there have been five confirmed acupuncture-related hepatitis B infections, hepatitis C and HIV infections were only mentioned as a possibility.

"Although no clear evidence exists to support a link between acupuncture and HIV infection," the researchers wrote in the column,  "there are reports of patients with HIV who had no risk factors other than acupuncture."


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