13 patients possibly exposed to rare and fatal brain disease from N.H. hospital

Up to 13 patients may have been exposed to a rare and fatal brain disease through potentially contaminated surgical equipment used at a New Hampshire Hospital, state health officials announced Wednesday. 

Eight neurosurgery patients in New Hampshire and up to five in other states have been warned that they may have shared equipment with a patient who may have died from what's believed to be Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, or CJD, a disabling fatal disorder that affects the nervous system, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services told NBC News. 

The patient had brain surgery in May at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., officials said. The patient is believed to have had the sporadic form of CJD, a disease that happens spontaneously, and not the variant form of CJD, which is commonly known as "mad cow disease" and is associated with eating contaminated beef. Officials are releasing no information, including age or gender, about that patient. 

The only way to diagnose the disease with certainty is through autopsy, which is currently being performed at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center, officials said. Results will not be available for about four weeks. 

The other patients may have been exposed through tainted surgical equipment, including rented equipment used in other states. The prion that causes sporadic CJD cannot be eliminated through the standard sterilization process used at hospitals. A prion is an infectious organism composed primarily of folds of protein. 

The patients have been notified; health workers, patients and the general public are not at risk, officials said. 

"The risk to these individuals is considered extremely low," Dr. José Montero, Director of Public Health at DHHS, said in a statement. "But after extensive expert discussion, we could not conclude that there was no risk, so we are taking the step of notifying the patients and providing them with as much information as we can. Our sympathies are with all of the patients and their families, as this may be a confusing and difficult situation."

CJD affects about 1 in a million people worldwide each year. About 200 cases are diagnosed with the disease each year in the U.S. Early symptoms may include rapidly failing memory and other cognitive problems. Personality changes, anxiety, depression, lack of coordination and visual disturbances often occur. In later stages, jerky movements, blindness, weak limbs and coma may occur. 

There is no treatment or cure, officials said.