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N.C. Hospital: 18 patients may have been exposed to brain infection

Eighteen neurosurgery patients at a North Carolina hospital may have been exposed to the deadly Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) brain infection.

Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. said in a statement that it had performed a procedure on a patient with neurological symptoms on Jan. 18. Afterwards, tests revealed he had CJD.

CJD is an incurable brain disease characterized by rapidly progressive dementia that can lead to death within months. The vast majority of cases are caused by proteins found in the body called prions that spontaneously become abnormal.

Symptoms, which can surface years after contracting CJD, start as problems with muscle coordination, personality changes, impaired memory and judgment. Eventually, the symptoms progress into severe mental impairment. The patient may slip into a coma and die.

CJD is rare, and affects about one in a million people each year worldwide. About 200 cases are reported in the U.S. each year, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke points out.

The surgical equipment used in the N.C. patient’s procedure was sterilized. However, it was not completed up to the enhanced standards required in CJD cases since prions can survive routine cleaning procedures, the hospital explained.

“There were reasons to suspect that this patient might have had CJD. As such, the extra precautions should have been taken, but were not,” the hospital said in the statement.

Novant’s Dr. Jim Lederer said the risk of illness to the 18 individuals exposed to the surgical equipment is remote, but they informed them since they cannot say for sure there is no risk.

“Our first concern is for our patients who are recovering from surgery and may now need additional support,” he said.

All surgical equipment since then have undergone the enhanced sterilization procedures.

Last September, a similar medical scare occurred at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., where at least eight patients who had brain surgery were exposed to CJD. Health officials informed the public after a patient underwent surgery in May and died in August of the disease.

Health officials also notified five patients in the Massachusetts area that they too may have been exposed to the tools. CJD is often associated with another prion disease found only in animals, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease." Humans that eat meat infected with BSE develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

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