Boston health officials investigating severe infections from “medical tourism”

Boston health officials are investigating several reports of severe infections in patients who traveled to the Dominican Republic for cosmetic surgery.

At least two patients in Boston, and another in Worcester, are believed to have been infected with Mycobacterium abscessus, a bacteria that is not easily battled with antibiotics, and can take months of treatment to vanquish.

The patients were part of a group that went to the Dominican Republic during the summer for surgeries and started having health problems, including abscesses and drainage from their surgery sites, earlier this fall, said Dr. Anita Barry, director of the infectious disease bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission.

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Other patients in the group who live in Maryland, Connecticut, and New York have also been infected, she said.

Health officials are concerned because so-called “medical tourism” has become a major industry in many Latin American countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 750,000 people from the United States travel abroad each year seeking low cost medical care.

“We became aware because one of the out-of-state people knew someone in the Worcester area, who was having similar post-op problems,” Barry said. “That person knew someone in Boston who was having the same problems, and that person told us about a second Boston case.”

The germ can be spread through contaminated medical equipment, medical supplies, or poor surgical techniques. Infection can cause severe pain and swelling, and often does not show up until several weeks after surgery.

The infection is not contagious to other people, but is serious and needs to be treated, Barry said.

“We’re trying to get the word out that if you are going overseas for surgery, you have to find out how many infections this place has had, and also find out how many people have died having medical procedures in this place,” Barry said.

The commission recommends that patients considering surgery in another country speak with their primary care provider about the procedure at least four to six weeks prior to traveling, and get copies of all medical records related to the surgery and medical care provided abroad before returning home.