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18 North Carolina patients possibly exposed to rare brain disease

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Eighteen neurological patients in a North Carolina hospital may have been exposed to a rare, incurable and fatal degenerative brain disease.

The patients who underwent surgery at the Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center because surgical instruments were insufficiently sterilized, the hospital said on Monday.

Surgeons operated on the 18 patients in the past three weeks using tools that had not been sufficiently sanitized after they were used on a patient who had surgery on January 18 and later tested positive for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders says, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) affects about one person in every one million people per year worldwide; in the United States there are about 200 cases per year. CJD usually appears in later life and runs a rapid course. Typically, onset of symptoms occurs about age 60, and about 90 percent of individuals die within 1 year. In the early stages of disease, people may have failing memory, behavioral changes, lack of coordination and visual disturbances. As the illness progresses, mental deterioration becomes pronounced and involuntary movements, blindness, weakness of extremities, and coma may occur.

Jeff Lindsay, president of the medical center, said at a news conference. "On behalf of the entire team at Novant Health, I apologize to the patients and their families for having caused this anxiety."

The incubation period - before initial symptoms surface - can last years, the statement said. After the first sign of symptoms, patients die in an average of four months, it said.

The possibility of contracting the disease through surgical exposure is very remote, the hospital said.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened.

Last year, health officials said at least 15 patients in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire may have been exposed to the disease in a case similarly tied to unsanitary surgical instruments.

In North Carolina, the surgical instruments were sterilized using standard hospital procedures but were not subjected to the enhanced sterilization procedures necessary on instruments used in confirmed or suspected cases of CJD, the hospital statement said.

There are no treatments for the disease.

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