Acupuncture Needles May Transmit Disease

Mar 20 2010 - 1:17am
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The prick of an acupuncture needle may do more than activate the flow of chi, or the life force, and initiate healing. Microbiologists report that contaminated acupuncture needles may be transmitting diseases such as hepatitis B and C, bacterial infections, and perhaps even HIV.

Acupuncture is an ancient alternative medicine practice with its roots deep in China, and today it is practiced around the world. Although acupuncture is used to prevent and treat a wide range of symptoms and ailments, in scientific studies it has proven most effective in treating pain, especially pain associated with arthritis, back pain, migraine, and cancer. Recent studies have indicated that it may be useful in treating Parkinson’s disease.

The growing popularity of acupuncture has meant that more practitioners are entering the field, and a growing number of people are seeking treatment. Both scenarios may be contributing to the problem of disease transmission associated with contaminated acupuncture needles, cotton swabs, and hot packs.

The editorial about acupuncture-related infections came from scientists at the University of Hong Kong, who noted that the number of reported cases around the world greatly underrepresents the real number of people who have been affected. They call for stricter regulations and accreditation requirements in an effort to control the transmission of infection.

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In the United States, acupuncture practitioners must be certified. Medical doctors who practice acupuncture must complete a training program approved by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture, while non-physicians must pass board exams given by the National Certification Commission of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine for certification. Acupuncturists are expected to follow procedures to prevent infection. These include using disposable, sterile, single-use needles and swabbing the treatment area with alcohol or a similar disinfectant before inserting the needles.

Other risks associated with acupuncture include a risk of bleeding by people who have bleeding disorders, low white blood cell counts, or who take blood thinners. Individuals who have low white blood cell counts are at an increased risk of infection during acupuncture.

The researchers from the University of Hong Kong, led by Patrick Woo, a microbiology professor at the institution, also warned about a new syndrome known as acupuncture mycobacteriosis. This infection is caused by mycobacteria that grow and multiple around an acupuncture insertion point when it is exposed to contaminated cotton wool swabs, towels, and hot-pack covers. More than 50 cases of acupuncture mycobacteriosis have been reported so far from around the world.

At least five outbreaks of hepatitis B virus infection have been linked to acupuncture thus far, and the study’s authors also note that transmission of HIV and hepatitis C may also be associated with acupuncture needles. Thus far, however, there is no clear evidence to support a link between acupuncture treatments and HIV, even though some patients with HIV have had no other risky behaviors except for acupuncture.

SOURCE:
China Daily March 19, 2010
Huang Y et al. International Journal of Neuroscience 2010 Feb; 120(2): 150-54

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Comments

All the evidence for this article comes from outside the US, or is nearly 30 years old. I'm not sure that it provides very much public safety to report on statistics that old that have been remedied. In the US acupuncturists must be certified in aseptic needle techniques to get licensed. As a result, cases of infection in the US have not been reported since 1984.
In most states in the U.S., it is a requirement that acupuncturists use only single-use, sterilized needles that are immediately disposed of in state-licensed Biohazard containers. Wool swabs? Towels? Hotpacks? These are not modalities or accessories used in acupuncture clinics in the U.S. It is also a myth that swabbing skin with rubbing alcohol will prevent infection. It just makes people feel less anxious about it. One more fact: Physicians who become certified to do acupuncture are only required to complete a 300-hour course, while non-physician licensed acupuncturists are required to complete nearly 4 years of comprehensive training in Chinese Medicine, including over 1000 hours of clinical rounds. Articles like this sound a bit conspiratorial and alarmist. But I guess that's what sells news...
As a practising licensed acupuncturist in the US, I find the headline on this article extremely misleading. It is the norm for needles in the US to be Sterile, Single Use, Disposable. Personally, I follow Clean Needle Technique and Universal Precautions to the letter. Needles should NEVER be re-used. Infections in the US are EXTREMELY rare. However, I hear from my peers who also study in China that needles in China are merely soaked in alcohol before being reused, contributing to i high nfection rates in China. The information in this article does NOT apply to the US.
Do you really need a microbiologist to tell you that if you penetrate the skin with a contaminated needle you can transmit disease? All acupuncture needles used in the US are single use, STERILE needles so this whole article does not apply to treatments here. And by the way, since when do you cite an editorial (opinion) as fact anyways?
I also agree with you. All the acupuncture needles used one time and after that, they just throw it out. There may be a negligible chance of transmitting disease through new needles but that chance is almost 0.99%. fertilityacupuncturesydney.com.au
The main issue is that we use disposable needles assuming that they are really sterile. Can we depend on quality of "Poorly made in China"? is the real question.