Acupuncture can spread serious diseases: experts

HONG KONG Thu Mar 18, 2010 8:01pm EDT

Dr. Shali Rassouli performs a cosmetic acupuncture treatment on patient Ruth Dorree in Toronto, July 17, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Cassese

Dr. Shali Rassouli performs a cosmetic acupuncture treatment on patient Ruth Dorree in Toronto, July 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Cassese

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Bacterial infections, hepatitis B and C, and possibly even HIV are being transmitted via acupuncture through the use of contaminated needles, cotton swabs and hot packs, experts warned on Friday.

In an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, microbiologists at the University of Hong Kong said the number of reported acupuncture-related infections worldwide was the tip of an iceberg and they called for tighter infection control measures.

"To prevent infections transmitted by acupuncture, infection control measures should be implemented, such as use of disposable needles, skin disinfection procedures and aseptic techniques," wrote the researchers, led by Patrick Woo, microbiology professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"Stricter regulation and accreditation requirements are also needed," they added.

Acupuncture is one of the most widely practiced strands of alternative medicine and is based on the theory that inserting and manipulating fine needles at specific points in the body helps to promote the flow of "Qi" or energy.

It has its origins in ancient China and has become widely accepted in the West in recent decades particularly in the treatment of pain. It is also used for conditions like obesity, constipation and arthritis, among others, although documented scientific evidence for these are patchy.

Woo and his colleagues said acupuncture may be risky as needles are inserted up to several centimeters beneath the skin and they warned of a new syndrome -- acupuncture mycobacteriosis -- in the 21st century.

"This 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. There is a long incubation period but the infection usually leads to large abscesses and ulcers," they wrote.

"So far, more than 50 cases have been described globally. In most cases ... bacteria were transmitted from the patient's skin flora or the environment because of inadequate skin disinfection before acupuncture," they wrote.

While most patients recover from these bacterial infections, 5 to 10 percent of the reported bacterial infections end up with serious problems including joint destruction, multi-organ failure, flesh-eating disease and paralysis.

There have been at least five outbreaks of hepatitis B virus infection that are linked to acupuncture.

In most of these cases, the sources were infected patients and the virus was transmitted through dirty needles, although in one case, it was the acupuncturist who was the source, they said.

The paper also laid out the possibility of transmission of hepatitis C and HIV via acupuncture.

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

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Comments (6)
blreinert wrote:
“50 cases globally” out of how many millions, probably billions being treated and helped? The study doesn’t give a time-frame for these 50 cases, either. So your chances of getting one of these described infections if you are treated is how much less than your chances of getting struck by lightening? There’s nothing wrong with the information presented, but in my opinion, it’s being way over-dramatized and is a clearly biased article. The benefits FAR outweigh these minimal risks, and my personal Acupuncturist takes more than reasonable measures including disposable needles which alone probably reduces the risks by a factor of 100.

Mar 19, 2010 2:04am EDT  --  Report as abuse
And just how many cases of infection would you need to see in order for this to taken as a credible threat??? Tell that to the innocent patients who put their trust in these so-called “doctors.” Those who practice this type of back woods treatment should be required by law to prove they have adequate medical education, and be held accountable when they can’t.

Obviously this is an important, informative article that presents the subject in a truly balanced and fair fashion. This is the type of article that we need to see more of, to see the fallacy behind the curtain being exposed.

Mar 19, 2010 11:19am EDT  --  Report as abuse
susanrichey wrote:
This is the ridiculous kind of “news” story that gets pulled out and disseminated as if it was really something of interest to the whole world. There is no massive untapped “infection” from acupuncture in the United States–and to suggest that there is something unclean about acupuncture is just wrong. It is safe, gentle, and effective. True outside the US, Canada, UK, Australia, NZ and Europe, the standards are less known. This should have been a small study in Hong Kong that died on the news wire. Shame on you for fear-mongering amongst the SAFEST and most GENTLE medicine of them all.

Mar 19, 2010 2:57pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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