former hospital patients warned about serious infection risk

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, several hospitals across the country — including right here in Pittsburgh — notified patients about possible exposure to a severe and rather frightening condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease during surgical procedures.

For those unfamiliar with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD as it is otherwise known, it is a type of fatal brain disorder characterized by the presence of prion, a rare protein that is resistant to the standard sterilization procedures used in most hospitals. Statistics show that every year roughly 200 people are diagnosed with the condition, which medical experts believe can be spread via instruments used in surgical procedures on the eye, brain and spinal cord.

In response to the aforementioned scare concerning CJD exposure, the Joint Commission — a non-profit organization that accredits and certifies health care facilities that meet certain quality/safety standards — indicated in 2001 that hospitals needed to put a system in place for tracking surgical instruments. Furthermore, they indicated that hospitals needed to ensure they had established a protocol for properly sterilizing or disposing of surgical instruments used in those cases where CJD was either suspected or confirmed.

This mandate from the Joint Commission, coupled with sterilization guidelines from the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, has served to not only help prevent the spread of CJD over the years, but also to more easily track down former patients in the event of possible CJD exposure.

Take, for example, an incident in New Hampshire earlier this month in which a Manchester-based hospital was able to track down and notify at least eight patients that they may have been exposed to CJD from neurosurgery instruments that had previously been used on a patient suspected of having the condition.

“There is an extremely small chance that eight patients who had neurosurgery using this equipment may have been exposed to CJD,” read a statement from the state health department. “This risk is very small, but exists, so these patients have been informed.”

While the risk of contracting CJD via contaminated surgical instruments is thankfully low, this incident underscores what can happen when hospitals fail to follow the proper sterilization procedures. In another situation, the failure to sterilize could conceivably result in a patient’s contracting an equally deadly condition such as hepatitis or even HIV. This type of medical negligence simply cannot be tolerated.

Modern Healthcare, “N.H. hospital notifies patients of possible Creutzfeldt-Jakob exposure,” Jaimy Lee, September 5, 2013

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