An expert on Friday urged people to be wary of using over-the-counter antiseptic products, after health authorities identified at least 181 people who developed bacterial infections after using two potentially tainted ‘wound care’ products over the past two years.

Dr Siddharth Sridhar, from the University of Hong Kong’s microbiology department, said while authorities are still investigating the issue – which came to light earlier this week – no fatalities have been linked to the outbreak so far.

“However, severe infections, like bloodstream infections as well as abdominal infections have been documented and these have been treated with antibiotics”, he said.

Two products, Pro-Medi Prosept solution and Kam’s KS-MED solution, have tested positive for burkholderia cepacia – a common bacteria found all over the environment that’s usually harmless.

But Sridhar said when the bacteria is applied directly to wounds, it can cause severe infections, especially when the patients have compromised immune systems, or the concentration of bacteria is high.

One-third of those affected are kidney patients undergoing dialysis.

Both products are readily available in pharmacies – including private stores that have outlets at public hospitals – but neither are regulated as medical products as they have very small amounts of the disinfecting agent chlorhexidine.

Sridhar said while it’s common practice for kidney patients who have long-term dialysis catheters in place to use antiseptic products to clean their wounds, this outbreak highlights how this can do more harm than good.

“Their wounds are actually quite clean, they have no signs of infection: they don’t have a fever; they don’t have any symptoms. To be very strict, they actually do not need to uset the antiseptic solutions at all”, he said.

Sridhar said while there is a general mentality among patients, and even doctors and nurses, that using an antiseptic solution provides an extra layer of security, using saline solution to clean the wounds is enough.

“In this case I think it clearly proves that using an antiseptic solution is by no means an insurance against infection because even the solutions can get contaminated by these hardy environmental bacteria”, he said.