Bacteria-Contaminated Syringes Sicken Dozens

Federal health officials said Tuesday they are investigating dozens of blood infections in at least two states that have been linked to medical syringes contaminated with bacteria.

About 40 people have been sickened in Illinois and Texas, including 20 outpatients from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. No deaths were reported.

Rush doctors traced the infections earlier this month to heparin-filled syringes the patients used during home treatment for cancer and other ailments. Heparin is a blood thinner, and the syringes are used to clear out catheters and intravenous lines.

The infections were caused by bacteria called Serratia marcescens (pronounced Sur-AY'-she-uh mar-SUH'-sens), found in a single batch of heparin-filled syringes made in Angier, N.C., by a company called Sierra Pre-Filled.

Syringes from that batch also were sent to Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania but infections so far have turned up only in Illinois and Texas, said Dr. Arjun Srinivasan of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infections can cause fever and chills. They can be serious but generally respond well to antibiotics.

There have been no known deaths, Srinivasan said. Of the 20 Rush outpatients who fell ill, 14 required hospitalization. All responded quickly to antibiotic treatment and only one remained hospitalized Tuesday, said Dr. John Segreti, hospital epidemiologist.

The president of Sierra Pre-Filled, Dushyant Patel, said the company is working with the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration and has voluntarily recalled the implicated lot. "There's nothing out there anymore," Patel said.

The affected lot is 070926H, Srinivasan said. He said the CDC is working to make sure doctors are alerted about the contamination and that more cases could surface.

"Our highest priority is to ensure that all of those cases that occur are identified," he said.

Patients who think they used affected syringes should contact their doctors, Srinivasan said.

He said bacteria were found in fluid from the pre-filled syringes but it is uncertain if the original contamination was in the heparin, the saline used to dilute the drug, or the syringes themselves.

"We'll be working to perform genetic fingerprinting on the bacteria to confirm a link between bacteria in the syringes and the case patients," Srinivasan said.

Heparin is the same drug linked to overdoses accidentally given to actor Dennis Quaid's newborn twins. In that case the heparin was made by Deerfield, Ill.-based Baxter Healthcare Corp. The twins appeared to be doing well, a lawyer for the Quaids said earlier this month.

Patel said the heparin in his company's pre-filled syringes comes from a different company.