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North Carolina Hospital Exposed Patients to Cruetzfeldt-Jakob Disease

A North Carolina hospital indicates that it may have exposed at least 18 patients to a serious and incurable brain disease, known as Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), after it was discovered that surgical instruments may not have been properly sterilized.  

The Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center issued a press release this week warning that the patients may have been exposed to what is generally considered a human version of “mad cow” disease, which can rapidly impact memory and cognitive function. However, the hospital indicates that the risk of infection is remote and that the last known surgical transmission of Cruetzfeldt-Jakob disease was 1976.

“Although the risk of getting the disease is very low, Novant Health believes it is important to share this information with patients, family members, and the community,” the press release states. “Patients who underwent neurosurgery and were exposed already have been contacted directly by Novant Health.”

The warning comes after a medical team at the hospital performed brain surgery on a patient who was later diagnosed as having CJD. While the surgical instruments were sterilized according to normal standards, they were not sterilized to the higher standards required to prevent transmission of CJD, because of the hospital’s failure to diagnose the patient’s condition in a timely manner.

Those same instruments were used on at least 18 other patients who received direct warnings from the hospital.

The incident is nearly identical to one that occurred in September 2013 when a patient from Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire died from sporadic CJD after undergoing neurosurgery.

That patient was operated on in May, but was later readmitted after dementia quickly set in. Health officials believe the patient was suffering from CJD at the time the surgery occurred. The same surgical instruments were used on at least 15 other patients at Catholic Medical Center and Cape Cod Hospital in Massachusetts, investigators say, raising concerns that those patients could have been exposed to CJD due to contamination.

Spontaneous CJD is Lethal But Rare

Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD) affects one in one million people each year, approximately 200 to 300 people annually. CJD strikes for no reason and is almost always fatal. CJD is only detectable by autopsy or brain biopsy after death.

Sporadic CJD is a variant of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, also known as “mad cow disease.” It occurs spontaneously and is caused by prions, an infectious protein that turns healthy proteins in the brain into unhealthy cells. The prions eventually kill the healthy cells and create holes in the brain. Brain tissue from infected persons can infect a healthy brain.

When symptoms develop they may include rapidly deteriorating memory and cognitive function. It often progresses much faster than Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Other symptoms may include anxiety, depression and personality changes. Symptoms may progress to include involuntary movement, blindness, muscle weakness and coma. No treatment or cure has been developed.

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