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Fatal brain disease potentially affects five people in Massachusetts

By Julia Lull, CNN
September 6, 2013 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
  • Patients may have been exposed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, officials say
  • Possibly contaminated medical equipment was used for patients' surgery, officials say
  • The same equipment may have exposed eight patients in New Hampshire

(CNN) -- Five patients who underwent surgery at a Cape Cod Hospital this summer may have been exposed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease after their surgeries were performed using the same potentially contaminated medical equipment found in a New Hampshire hospital, according to a statement released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Thursday.

The specialized medical equipment had originally been used to operate on a patient now suspected of having Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday.

The now-deceased patient had neurosurgery at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, and normal sterilization procedures don't get rid of the disease proteins, known as prions, the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday.

The surgical equipment used at both hospitals was from Medtronic Inc. according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The five most recent cases in Cape Cod come one day after the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services announced it is monitoring eight patients for signs of the fatal brain disease.

"Our concern is with the health and well-being of the eight patients who may have been exposed to CJD," Dr. Joseph Pepe, Catholic Medical Center's CEO, said in a statement issued with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday. "We will work closely with these families to help them in any way possible, even though the risk of infection is extremely low."

Mad cow: Adequate testing?

The five most recent patients each had spinal cord surgery at Cape Cod Hospital between July and August 2013, and all the potentially affected patients have been notified of the risk, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said.

The department added that the risk to the potentially affected patients is very low because they underwent spinal cord surgery instead of brain surgery. There is no danger to hospital staff or members of the public, according to the statement.

An autopsy of the original patient to confirm the illness -- which differs from a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease commonly known as "mad cow disease" -- is being conducted at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center, Catholic Medical Center said Wednesday. The only way to confirm the illness is with an autopsy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no cases of the disease have been linked to the use of contaminated medical equipment since 1976. Most medical devices are sterilized by heat, but the World Health Organization recommends the use of a caustic chemical like sodium hydroxide to disinfect equipment that may have come in contact with tissues that could cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease strikes fewer than 400 people a year in the United States, according to the CDC. Victims show signs of memory loss and cognitive difficulty early on; the ailment is "rapidly progressive and always fatal," the CDC says.

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CNN's Matt Smith, Miriam Falco and Jennifer Bixler contributed to this report.

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