Up to 29 patients are to be told they may have been exposed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) by instruments used on a patient diagnosed with the fatal brain disease.
Surgeons at Middlesbrough General Hospital used the instruments in a routine brain operation on a patient who turned out to have sporadic CJD – a type of the disease which differs from variant CJD (known as the human form of BSE and linked to contaminated meat) but which can have the same effects.
The diagnosis was unexpected prior to surgery, according to the hospital, and was not confirmed until 8 August, three weeks after the operation. The instruments – drills, craniotomy equipment and general medical equipment such as scalpels – were then withdrawn.
But the Department of Health, which established new guidelines governing the handling of instruments in 1999, said the equipment should have been quarantined as soon as the risk of CJD was evident and not once it had been confirmed. The breach was "appalling", said the DoH.
South Tees NHS Trust said it was setting up meetings with the patients involved, to discuss what the DoH described as a "theoretical risk".
Officials are trying to establish if there is any risk of the patients contracting the illness.
Clearly distinguishable from variant CJD by its appearance in brain tissue, the sporadic form strikes for reasons which are unclear. It accounts for 85 per cent of CJD cases, affects one in a million people in the UK and can have an incubation period of 20 years.
A DoH spokesman said guidance from the department on the handling of instruments were there to "prevent the avoidable and unnecessary exposure to this disease ... It appears that the Trust concerned has failed to do so."
A hospital spokeswoman added: "We appreciate the distress and concern this news may cause to these patients, their families and the public at large." The hospital was trying to set up a helpline for patients early today.
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