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Uncertainty, emotional injury for those exposed to deadly disease

Imagine how it would feel to learn you were exposed accidentally to a deadly disease during a hospital stay. The mental suffering would be extraordinary, especially for a Boston patient who had to wait years to find out if the disease was transmitted.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may lie dormant in a person's body for several months or even decades, before early dementia-like symptoms are linked definitively to the condition. Once diagnosed, the rare brain disorder often progresses quickly and results in death about a year later.

The disease is not spread easily but, in about 1 percent of known cases, patients contract CJD in nontraditional ways like iatrogenic transmission -- a hospital or doctor's mistake. Records have shown CJD can spread through inadequately sterilized surgical tools, although the last known case was in 1976. Only four cases have been confirmed worldwide.

The World Health Organization and U.S. health officials have warned the medical community that regular, post-operative sanitization procedures don't work. Advanced sterilization techniques or the destruction of surgical equipment is recommended, after surgical tools are used on patients with CJD.

More than a half dozen serious CJD incidents were reported at U.S. hospitals in the last 14 years. Last fall, a New England hospital admitted eight patients were exposed to CJD through improperly cleaned surgical equipment. State health officials later added five more names to the list, including a Massachusetts resident.

In many cases, surgeons reused tools after operating on patients suspected of having Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Diagnoses occurred following the operations, after surgical tools had been passed along for use on other patients.

None of the patients affected in recent cases have been diagnosed with CJD. Some have filed and settled cases against the hospitals for malpractice and mental anguish. Emotional injury is as compensable as physical injury in a liability lawsuit, although mental distress may be more difficult for plaintiffs to prove.

Source: Winston-Salem Journa, "Lawsuits common after discovery of brain disease mishap" Richard Craver, Feb. 16, 2014

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