15 patients in 3 states possibly exposed to fatal brain disease

Fifteen people in three states now have been warned that they may have been exposed to a rare and fatal brain disease through potentially contaminated surgical equipment, health officials said Friday.

In addition to eight patients in New Hampshire, five in Massachusetts and two in Connecticut have received the news that they may have shared tainted equipment with a patient who died from apparent Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, an invariably fatal brain disorder, those states confirmed.

The initial patient had brain surgery in May at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H. Officials there are waiting for autopsy results, but say the patient likely suffered from sporadic CJD, which pops up spontaneously. It’s not the variant form of CJD that causes a human form of “mad cow disease” and is associated with eating beef contaminated with the cattle version, called bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, experts caution.

The five Massachusetts patients underwent surgery at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, while the two Connecticut patients were treated at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Haven, health officials said.

They, along with the initial patient, were all treated using a guided imaging navigation system manufactured by Medtronic Inc., as well as the surgical tools that go with it, said Cindy Resman, a spokeswoman for Medtronic. The instruments included a metal reference frame and brace used during the brain procedure, as well as two other metal surgical tools used during the surgery.

Other patients were treated with tools from a different manufacturer, Resman said. Hospitals frequently share high-cost neurosurgery equipment on a fee-for-use or rental basis.

The problem arose because standard hospital sterilization techniques cannot eradicate the prion that causes s CJD. A prion is a protein, and the types that cause BSE and CJD are not only misfolded, but somehow manage to transform other proteins into the disease-causing shape.

The risk of infection is very low, state officials said, and all patients have been notified. If someone is infected, symptoms can take many years to develop. There is no risk to health workers or to the general public.

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.