Dec. 27, 2002. 10:38 AM
Judy Berkal is undergoing treatment for a skin infection after visiting an acupuncturist in Toronto in August. When she told health officials, they said they were investigating the clinic. "There are other people who have been connected to this woman," she says.
More patients have skin disease (Dec. 24) 
Province urged to monitor clinics (Dec. 23) 
Scared for the future (Dec. 22) 
Skin infection shuts clinics (Dec. 21) 
'Scared for the future'
Acupuncture visit becomes woman's ongoing ordeal


When Corrinne King needed a cure for complications she suffered after giving birth, she turned to acupuncturist Sandra Testaguzza for help.

Now, King, 35, says that decision has turned into a months-long ordeal of doctor visits, creams and antibiotic treatments for an unusual skin infection that health officials suspect she contracted through dirty acupuncture needles.

King and another infected woman, Judy Berkal, both said they have been in contact with public health officials, who told them links between their infections and visits to Testaguzza's clinics are being investigated.

Twelve people in the Greater Toronto area have become infected with the same bacteria after reportedly visiting two clinics in Toronto. Gene Long, a spokesperson for the public health department, would neither confirm nor deny if Testaguzza was the acupuncturist involved.

"There is no public health reason to release the name of the acupuncturist from our end," Long told the Star last night.

Explaining why the health unit didn't issue a public alert, Long said:

"There's always a balance between taking care of the immediate issue, which is contacting those potentially at risk, and providing a general public health message.

"In the first instance, we were busy working on contacting the clients and there wasn't a need for a broadcast message. We have a very good track record of very quickly making contacts with people who have a direct health need to know.

"We were prepared to do a general communication about the situation, but we hadn't released it until (the) Toronto Star called us and we provided a full disclosure. We were concentrated on reaching the clients. We likely would have released a statement once we were done with our immediate work.

"This was a kind of a day-at-a-time thing. It's always a judgment call about when to issue a statement.''

The problem first came to light in October. Toronto Public Health admitted on Friday that it had started Wednesday to try to contact more than 100 people in the GTA who may have become infected at two unnamed clinics, one on Bathurst St. in North York and the other in what's believed to be a private residence on Islington Ave. The public health unit has shut both clinics down.

The unit is notifying all clients who visited the clinics between April 1 and Dec. 16 that they may have been exposed to improperly sterilized acupuncture needles. They are suggesting those people get tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C and the skin infection.

The bacteria is called Mycobacterium abscessus, and is rarely found in humans.

Yesterday, the Star was unable to reach Testaguzza for comment. Her office on Bathurst St. was locked and empty. Calls were not returned.

Testaguzza is listed as a doctor of acupuncture at the Ruth Pettle Wellness Center, and is also a woman's health consultant at the Wellness Centre at York University.

King and Berkal, both Testaguzza's clients, both called the Star yesterday after seeing a report about the clinics being closed as a result of the skin infections.

About two months ago, King says she contacted public health officials after the doctor who was treating her for the bacterial infection told her officials wanted to speak with her.

According to King, she was interviewed at length by health officials about the specifics of her visits with Testaguzza.

"She (the health official) wanted to know everything that had happened.''

``She wanted to know dates from me, she wanted to know how Sandra Testaguzza practised," said King, who lives in Queensville near Newmarket.

Berkal, a mother of two in her 40s, said that, like King, she visited Testaguzza's clinic in August. She said that after experiencing raised red lumpy lesions, she decided to contact health officials.

`Once you are able to see the pattern, once you are able to make the link, then you can put out the public health warning.'

Joe Mihevc, chair of the city's board of health

"They said they were investigating it. There are other people who have been connected to this woman (Testaguzza). She gave me the name of what the other people had, and that I should go to the doctor with that information," Berkal said.

King says her problems began in August when her gynecologist referred her to Testaguzza, for treatment for postpartum hemorrhaging.

During their first session, King said, she saw Testaguzza remove acupuncture needles from a small jar. Following that treatment, she said, the places where pins had been used on her body broke out in little whiteheads.

When the symptoms grew more severe, King telephoned Testaguzza. She says the acupuncturist told her she might be having an allergic reaction to a solution that was used to soak the needles in.

Testaguzza recommended a natural oil to treat the skin condition, King said. "It didn't do a thing. The lesions got worse, they started to turn into boils."

So she called a second time.

"At that point in time over the telephone I said to her, `Sandra, tell me you used clean needles on me.'"

Testaguzza assured her the needles were clean and that as an extra precaution she would remove the needles from their packaging and soak them in a sterile solution, King said.

"I thought that was a bit bizarre because I was told by other people that they are absolutely sterile out of the package."

At a second treatment, King said Testaguzza told her she would not soak the needles. No new lesions appeared but the original ones remained.

In the months that followed, she visited three different dermatologists who prescribed five separate remedies.

One doctor, who had been at a conference where doctors discussed similar outbreaks, suspected an infection called Mycobacterium abscessus.

King and her husband David have postponed plans for a second child until her antibiotic treatment is over, she said.

"That's been emotionally hard."

Doctors have assured King her immune system is healthy and with the antibiotics she'll coast through the infection. But she still worries about her long-term health.

"I'm scared for the future," said King, who doubts she will ever visit another acupuncturist again.

The problems came to light Oct. 22 when a physician contacted the health department about a cluster of unusual skin infections in four patients, who had all been to the same acupuncturist.

The department began investigating. After initial denials, the acupuncturist interviewed by health officials admitted for the first time on Dec. 13 that needles had been reused and that there had been difficulty sterilizing equipment this past summer.

When asked if the acupuncturist would face any penalty, Long said acupuncture is not a regulated profession and his department's job is to ensure that infection control guidelines are being followed in "personal service settings."

Laboratory results weren't available until the end of November. By then, the clinic was closed because of a death in the family. Health officials were not able to reach the acupuncturist until Dec. 13, when the clinic was reopened and they managed to obtain a clients' list.

In an interview last night, City Councillor Joe Mihevc, chair of the city's board of health, said it takes time to contact potential victims.

"It's an issue of connecting the dots," Mihevc explained. "It takes a while to see a pattern. That's why it took the time that it did. Once you are able to see the pattern, once you are able to make the link, then you can put out the public health warning."

With files from Nicholas Keung

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