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2 Conn. patients possibly exposed to brain disease

Two patients who underwent surgery at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Connecticut may have been exposed to a fatal brain disease, health officials said yesterday.

Surgical equipment leased for the hospital was used previously at a hospital in New Hampshire, where officials believe a patient who had surgery in May and later died had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – a brain disease characterized by rapidly progressive dementia that can cause death within months after symptoms first appearing. It has no treatment or cure.

Authorities said 13 other patients in New England – eight in New Hampshire and five in Massachusetts – also may have been exposed to the disease.

The VA hospital in West Haven, Conn., was notified of the diagnosis Aug. 29, spokeswoman Pamela Redmond said. She said both of its patients have been informed.

“Per VA Connecticut sterilization procedures, these instruments were pre-washed, and then washed with enzymatic detergents,” Redmond said.

If the New Hampshire patient had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, there’s a remote chance it was transmitted to other brain surgery patients because the abnormal proteins that cause the disease can survive standard sterilization practices.

About 200 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are recorded annually in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, with the vast majority occurring spontaneously. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, the disease is transmitted by exposure to brain or nervous system tissue, and there have been only four reported cases of transmission via surgical instruments.

William Gerrish, a spokesman for Connecticut’s health department, said the risk of transmission to the Connecticut patients is considered very low. He said no other Connecticut hospital is known to have received potentially contaminated equipment.

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