Bed linen scare at Hong Kong hospitals underlines need to remain vigilant

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 1:50am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 1:50am

Fungi and bacteria abound in the community without doing much harm to healthy people with sound immune systems. But that is not necessarily so when they find their way into hospitals. Then they can become life-threatening to patients and shake confidence in our public health care system. The latest example has emerged at Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam, where a fungal outbreak infected six patients with weak immune systems and could be linked to the deaths of two of them, a 74-year-old recipient of a liver transplant and a 42-year-old woman with lung disease.

A panel has been set up at the hospital to investigate how the fungus rhizopus microsporus found its way into the wards and came into contact with the patients, infecting them with mucormycosis. Health authorities have not waited for the outcome of the inquiry before suspending use by 14 public hospitals and a clinic of a laundry service suspected of supplying infected linen to Queen Mary. Suspicion has fallen on corn starch used on the linen. Corn starch was also involved in the manufacture of a pill for gout tainted with the same fungus and linked to the deaths of several patients at the same hospital in 2009. About the same time, coincidentally, US investigators found hospital linen responsible for transmitting mucormycosis that killed five children at a paediatric hospital.

University of Hong Kong microbiologists said there were various possible factors, such as the temperature of washing, drying and ironing. Since normal washing should eliminate fungus and bacteria, investigators are also looking at storage and humidity. It would be difficult to determine the exact cause of the two deaths, as serious illness and other complications were involved. Thankfully, tests have given the all clear to the environment of Queen Mary Hospital itself. But the incident is a reminder that hospitals are exposed to the communities they serve, and that vigilance is paramount in their interaction with the outside world, however common and mundane, such as the supply of everyday goods and services.