N.B. health authority contacts over 700 patients after detecting rare degenerative brain disease

New Brunswick’s Horizon Health Network has identified two separate cases in which a patient with a probable case of a degenerative brain disease had cataract surgery at the Moncton Hospital — spurring them to contact 700 patients who underwent similar procedures at the facility.

The health authority confirmed to Global News on Monday evening that two cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) were detected at the facility but are unrelated.

Horizon directed Global News to a video that they published on their YouTube channel earlier on Monday about CJD when asked for information on incidents. The video is narrated by Dr. Gordon Dow, the chief of infectious diseases at Moncton Hospital.

In the video, Dow says that the first case of CJD was diagnosed after a patient was admitted to hospital in December. Six weeks later another man was diagnosed with the same degenerative brain disease.

Both of the patients had undergone surgery before being diagnosed with CJD.

“We could not find any reason for this but statistical probability. It just so happens that two rare events happened at once,” said Dow.

Dow stresses in the video that the risk of transmission of CJD is “very low.”

What is CJD

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, CJD is a rare and fatal brain disease that is caused by a protein in the brain called prion.

In its natural form, prion is harmless. But when it is abnormal it becomes toxic to brain cells.

The disease is difficult to diagnose and it can be several years before a person who is exposed to CJD has the abnormal prions form.

The society says CJD can affect everyone differently but that the disease progresses quickly once symptoms appear. People with CJD rarely live beyond a year.

CJD can be “accidentally transmitted during a medical procedure involving human tissues” but can also be transmitted from exposure to a cattle infected with a variant of CJD known as mad cow disease.

CJD can also happen sporadically, often in elderly people without warning, or be the result of a genetic mutation.

Informing patients

Dow stresses in the video that the risk of transmission of CJD is “very low” during cataract surgeries because the protein that results in the disease is not significantly present in the area of the where the surgery is carried out.

The chief of infectious diseases also says that modern sterilization methods used on surgical tools reduce the likelihood of transmission.

In the video — which, as of 7:30 p.m. Monday, has not been shared on Horizon’s official social media accounts — Dow says that transparency is important in medicine, even when there is low to no risk.

As a result, Dow says after detecting the first case, the cataract surgeon notified “each and every one” of 103 patients by phone who had “potentially been exposed” to the medical instruments used during the surgery.

The patients also received a letter informing them of the low risk of transmission.

The second incident prompted Horizon to notify 601 patients who had been potentially exposed. Dow says they couldn’t call all of the patients but they were informed through a letter.

A note has also been placed on all of the patient’s charts in order to flag that they warrant extra attention.

“The risk looks like zero and if its not zero it’s too low to measure,” Dow said in the video.

“So wouldn’t it be appropriate to be vigilant with the patients who had been exposed to the instruments.”

Dow says that the incident has made the hospital stress the importance of keeping track of tools used during surgeries.

Any patient who has questions or concerns are urged to contact 1-844-225-0200.

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