As many as eight patients at a New Hampshire hospital may have been exposed to a rare, fatal brain disease from surgery equipment that previously was used on a patient who likely had the incurable disease, state health officials said Wednesday.
The patients underwent neurosurgery at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester between May and August and have been notified of their potential exposure, the officials said during a news conference.
Additionally, the equipment may have been used on five patients in other, unnamed states before health officials realized the instruments may have been contaminated with brain tissue from the initial patient. That person had brain surgery in May, but only last month was it discovered that the patient had symptoms of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Health officials said the risk to the patients believed to have been exposed is extremely low.
"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," said Dr. José Montero, director of public health at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. "Our sympathies are with all of the patients and their families, as this may be a confusing and difficult situation."
Health officials said the standard methods for sterilizing surgical equipment does not kill the tiny proteins, known as prions, that cause the rare disease.
Dr. Joseph Pepe, Catholic Medical Center's chief executive, said that in order to be "99.99" percent sure the equipment is sterilized completely after surgery, such harsh chemicals would need to be used that the instruments would be ruined.
"It's such a rarity, it's just not practical," he said. "No hospital throws out their instruments after each and every surgery."
The incubation period for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the time between when patients were exposed and when they start experiencing symptoms, can be anywhere from a year to several decades, health officials said.
"Once symptoms appear the average time to death is about four months," said Pepe, Catholic Medical Center's chief executive. "There is no treatment, there is no cure."
Health officials said there is no risk to the families of the patients who may have been exposed, nor to other patients at the hospital. The disease cannot be transmitted through the air or through touching or most other forms of casual contact, according to the National Institutes of Health.