Dec. 24, 2002. 01:00 AM
More patients have skin disease
Number rises from 12 to 20 Acupuncture clinics still closed


The number of patients infected with a rare skin disease at two acupuncture clinics has jumped from 12 to 20, says Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Sheila Basrur.

"This infection is unsightly and annoying but not likely fatal, unless you are severely immuno-suppressed," Basrur said yesterday.

Seven city health officers have been working full-time to reach the 130 patients who received acupuncture treatment at the clinics on Bathurst St. in North York and also in a private residence on Islington Ave. between last April and this month, she said.

The patients are being told by Toronto Public Health that they should get tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C, and a skin infection called Mycobacterium abscessus.

"We've now reached about 80 per cent of them," Basrur said of the patients who live in Toronto. She said she could not provide statistics for patients who live outside the city.

Eighty-seven live in Toronto, 25 in York Region, eight in Peel and the rest are scattered around southern Ontario, she said.

Clinic operator Sandra Testaguzza could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Her clinics were verbally ordered closed on Dec. 13, and this was followed up with a written order last Thursday, Basrur said.

The clinics will remain closed until public health officers are convinced that proper infection-control practices are in place, she added.

A provincial government spokesperson said the Ministry of Health is moving toward regulating Ontario's estimated 10,000 acupuncturists, but he said he could give no estimate on when this will happen.

"There are definite plans for regulating acupuncture," Dave Jensen said yesterday.

"We're establishing an advisory committee.... I can't give you a definite timetable, but we're moving forward with this. It'll take some time because we want to do this right."

The process was well in place when news broke about the infections at the Toronto clinics, he said.

Meanwhile, established acupuncturists have levelled withering criticism at the provincial government, saying they have been trying for years for some minimum standards for training and regulation.

Toronto acupuncturist Luheng Han said patients in Greater Toronto get a false sense of security when they see certificates on the walls of clinics stating that acupuncturists have a "holistic licence."

`Since the 1990s, we have been urging the government to regulate acupuncture.'

Acupuncturist Luheng Han

"This is just a business licence," said Han, who studied acupuncture in China, where it takes four to five years to become certified as an acupuncturist.

"It has nothing to do with the profession."

The business licence just regulates hours of business and basic standards of cleanliness, like the business licence of someone who runs a doughnut shop or dog-grooming parlour, Han said.

Acupuncturist Cedric Cheung of London, Ont., said patients risk infection, paralysis and even death if they are treated incorrectly.

He's the long-time president of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada, which successfully lobbied provincial governments in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec to set up tight standards of conduct and licensing for acupuncturists.

While it takes four to five years to become considered competent in acupuncture in China, many of Ontario's acupuncturists have taken six-week correspondence courses, says a spokesperson for the acupuncture association.

Some don't even know how to clean needles, their own hands or the skin of patients, Cheung said.

He said he suspects that many infections created by incompetent acupuncturists in Ontario go unreported.

"Some incidents may not surface at all," he said.

Han is a member of the Ontario Acupuncture Association, which has been trying for several years to get the province to set minimum standards of qualification for acupuncturists and to have them governed by a regulatory body.

"Since the 1990s, we have been urging the government to regulate acupuncture," Han said.

"We've sent them over 100 letters. They talked about it a lot, but they never did one real thing."

Liberal MPP Mike Colle (Eglinton-Lawrence) said he plans to introduce a private member's bill calling for regulation of the province's 10,000 acupuncturists once the Legislature resumes sitting in the new year.

"Anybody in Ontario can hang up a shingle now and call themselves an acupuncturist," Colle said.

Well-trained acupuncturists have told him how deeply it offends them that acupuncture isn't treated like a profession in Ontario, he said.

"It's a sophisticated, complex, ancient medical practice that shouldn't be done by amateurs."

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