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