Disease fear closes operating rooms

May 9, 2001 United Press International by Mark Blanchard

A Canadian hospital closed its operating rooms Wednesday, after warning that more than 100 patients may have been infected with a rare and fatal brain disorder from its surgical equipment.

The Hotel Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ontario, said an unidentified female patient has been diagnosed with "classical" Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, not the human variant that's linked to mad cow disease and blamed for killing more than 100 people in Europe since 1995.

Doctors say there's "a remote risk" the disease may have been transmitted by medical equipment used during her brain surgery last month because normal sterilization procedures have little affect on CJD.

"We feel it is necessary to advise (patients) of their potential exposure to CJD," the hospital said in a news release, adding it doesn't wish to "harm patients by causing undue concern."

Authorities say at least six cases of transmission from surgical equipment have been confirmed worldwide, but claim the risk of transmission is estimated to be about one in 10-million.

"It's not even something that, if you touched a contaminated instrument, you would be at risk for," said Dr. Allen Heinmann, the Medical Officer of Health for Windsor and Essex County. "You really have to have this introduced to your body -- literally into your brain."

The Canadian hospital says its surgical equipment is now being thoroughly sterilized and is trying to contact the patients who may be at risk.

A Colorado hospital, meanwhile, is dealing with the same fear its patients may have been exposed to CJD the same way.

The Exempla St. Joseph Hospital in Denver says as many as six people may be at risk, after two patients died from the disease -- one in January, the other in February.

Surgical instruments are sterilized after each use, but doctors admit they don't know for sure if sterilization procedures are effective against the proteins that cause CJD.

The disease attacks the brain, killing cells and creating gaps in tissue. The brain then takes on a sponge-like appearance.

Early symptoms include memory problems, mood changes and lack of coordination. The disease progresses to shakiness and dementia. Victims eventually are unable to move or speak.

About 25 people in Canada and as many as 300 in the United States are diagnosed with CJD each year. Most patients have a family history of the disease. There is no treatment for it.

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