After public health officials came to the conclusion that one New Hampshire patient died from the rare, degenerative brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (similar to mad cow disease), there’s a small chance that up to 13 other patients in multiple states may have also been exposed to the disease — a debacle for which officials are apologizing profusely, while also emphasizing that the risk of exposure remains extremely low.

“The risk of exposure is extremely low, but it's not zero,” said Dr. José Montero, director of public health at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. “After extensive expert discussion, we could not conclude that there was no risk, so we are taking the step of notifying the patients and providing them with as much information as we can. Our sympathies are with all of the patients and their families, as this may be a confusing and difficult situation.”  

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a degenerative, sometimes fatal brain disorder. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the disease usually appears in older people, and about 90 percent of those diagnosed with it die within one year of symptoms. In the early stages of the disease, symptoms include memory failure, behavioral changes, and visual disturbances. More severe symptoms of the illness include pronounced mental deterioration, blindness, and weakness of the extremities.

“Once symptoms appear the average time to death is about four months,” said Dr. Joseph Pepe, Catholic Medical Center’s chief executive. “There is no treatment, there is no cure.”

According to the Associated Press, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is only transmitted by brain or nervous system exposure in less than one percent of cases. And, there are only four cases of transmission via surgical instruments in recorded history. None of those cases happened in the United States. A larger percentage — about 10 to 15 percent of Creutzfeldt-Jakob patients — received the disease through a genetic mutation.

The hospital notified the patients who may have been exposed and quarantined the potentially contaminated surgical equipment. Some of the surgical tools had been rented to hospitals in other states, so up to five of the potentially exposed patients may reside outside the state of New Hampshire.

"They took it very well. I don't believe that people were angry or extremely emotionally upset," said Pepe. "We did the best job we could in trying to alleviate their fear."