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Thirteen New England patients possibly exposed to fatal brain disease

By Richard Valdmanis

BOSTON (Reuters) - Thirteen people who recently underwent neurosurgery in Massachusetts and New Hampshire may have been exposed to a rare and fatal brain condition similar to "mad cow" disease because of potentially infected surgical instruments.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said on Thursday that five patients treated at Cape Cod Hospital between June and August are at low risk of infection for the disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). On Wednesday, New Hampshire announced eight patients treated at a hospital in New Hampshire may also have been exposed.

Surgical instruments used on the patients may have become infected with the microscopic protein that causes CJD after they were initially used on someone now suspected of having carried the disease.

Normal sterilization procedures at hospitals reduce, but do not eradicate, the protein that causes CJD.

"The risk of CJD exposure from the instrument was first identified by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services after the device was used on a patient in New Hampshire, who was subsequently suspected to have CJD," the Massachusetts health body said in a press release.

"The CJD risk to the Massachusetts patients is extremely low, as those patients underwent spinal surgery and not brain surgery," it said.

However, there is no way to test for CJD. The disease can only be confirmed by an autopsy.

A spokeswoman for Medtronic Inc, Cindy Resman, said a surgical kit of instruments it provided was used in the original New Hampshire case and all of the five Massachusetts cases. She said the instruments were also used on two patients in a third state, but declined to name that state.

"The instruments included a metal reference frame and brace used in surgical navigation during the procedure," she said.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts health body, Anne Roach, said the instruments used on all the patients were routinely cleaned before and after uses, but that "the prion that causes sporadic CJD is not completely eradicated by the standard sterilization process mandated at hospitals."

New Hampshire had warned on Wednesday that eight patients who recently underwent neurosurgery at the Manchester hospital may have been exposed as a result of potentially infected instruments. It said an autopsy was being performed on the original patient to test for the presence of sporadic CJD. Those results have not yet been released.

Officials in both states said there is no risk to the general public and that all 15 patients who may have been exposed have been notified.

Sporadic CJD is similar to "mad cow" disease but not linked to beef consumption. It crops up spontaneously without a known cause. There is no known treatment or cure for the condition, which has symptoms including failing memory, personality changes, blindness and sudden jerky movements.

(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Lisa Shumaker)

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