ATLANTA - More than 500 patients at Emory University Hospital have a remote chance of exposure to a fatal disease similar to mad cow because a brain surgery patient tested positive for the condition, officials said.
Although they called the risk of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease "remote," officials are notifying 98 brain or spinal surgery patients who might have had contact with the surgical instruments that were used on the infected patient. They also are informing 418 non-neurosurgical patients who had operations Sept. 10-27, although they are at lower risk.
Officials said Thursday that the infected patient's Sept. 15 diagnosis still awaits definitive test results, and that could take weeks. The patient entered the hospital Aug. 24 with memory problems and other neurological symptoms, and officials would not say whether the patient was still alive.
"Although we believe the chances of an exposure are extremely small, we cannot guarantee they are zero," said Dr. Allan Levey, Emory's chairman of neurology. "That is why Emory is taking every possible step to deal with this matter."
Affected patients began receiving phone calls Thursday. Emory said there was nothing they could or should do in response to the notification, but said it would provide counseling for those who need it.
The concern involves the naturally occurring, or sporadic, form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - not the variant form caused by eating infected beef. The sporadic form, which has no known cause, develops from the unexplained mutation of proteins in the brain called prions and causes dementia, loss of muscle coordination and eventually death.
There have been four known cases worldwide of the disease spread by neurosurgical instruments - all occurring in Europe before 1976, when most hospitals began new sterilization procedures, said Dr. Ermias Belay, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He added that more cases might have occurred, but it's often difficult to trace the source of the disease, which can take more than seven years to show symptoms.
Emory officials said they routinely sterilize all surgical equipment and have implemented a more thorough sterilization procedure since Sept. 15.