Eight patients monitored for deadly Creutzfeldt-Jakob brain disease, N.H. says

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Story highlights

  • Contaminated surgical equipment leads to concerns for 8 patients
  • The patients may have been exposed to proteins that cause Creutzfedt-Jakob disease
  • But the risk of infection is "very low," hospital chief says
  • CDC says no cases have been linked to surgical equipment since 1976

New Hampshire health officials say they're monitoring eight patients for signs of a fatal brain disease after medical equipment was found to have been contaminated by proteins that cause the ailment.

The equipment had been used to operate on a patient now suspected of having Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the state Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday. The now-deceased patient had undergone neurosurgery at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, and normal sterilization practice doesn't get rid of the proteins, known as prions, the health department said.

"Our concern is with the health and well-being of the eight patients who may have been exposed to CJD," Dr. Joseph Pepe, the hospital's CEO, said in a statement issued with the state agency Wednesday. "We will work closely with these families to help them in any way possible, even though the risk of infection is extremely low."

An autopsy to confirm the illness -- which differs from variant CJD commonly known as "mad cow disease" -- was being conducted at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center, the hospital said. The only way to confirm the illness is with an autopsy.

"CMC has notified all of these patients about their potential risk," the health department said. "The general public and any other patients at CMC and their employees are not at any risk."

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A similar incident occurred at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in 2004, leading to 98 brain and spinal surgery patients being monitored for possible exposure to CJD.

The CDC says no cases of the disease have been linked to the use of contaminated medical equipment since 1976. Most medical devices are sterilized by heat, but the World Health Organization recommends the use of a caustic chemical like sodium hydroxide to disinfect equipment that may have come in contact with tissues that could cause CJD.

CJD strikes fewer than 400 people a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Victims show signs of memory loss and cognitive difficulty early on; the ailment is "rapidly progressive and always fatal," the CDC says.

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