HONG KONG, March 19 (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
"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 practised 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 centimetres beneath the skin and they
warned of a new syndrome -- acupuncture mycobacteriosis -- in the
"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.