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Harm suffered by the 1 in '1 in a million' is still 1 too many

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is an illness that many of the readers of our New Haven medical malpractice law blog have possibly never heard of. A general lack of knowledge about the disease is no reflection of an individual’s level of education; it more likely has to do with the fact that the disease is extremely rare.

Although the disease may not be commonly known, its name has found repetition in the news as of late after 18 patients in a single hospital were potentially exposed to the degenerative brain disorder. What makes the potential exposure to this illness such a news-worthy event? This illness has no cure, but the one common fact in all known cases is that the disease proves fatal for every patient it affects.

The most recent episode of possible exposure occurred at Forsyth Medical Center in North Carolina. Before this incident was one that occurred at Catholic Medical Center in New Hampshire, where eight individuals were possibly exposed. Before that, there was a possible pool of 516 patients exposed at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. The largest known case in the United States was at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian, where around 4,000 patients were put at risk.

What causes this risk? This disorder is unusually resistant to standard sterilization of medical instruments used in an operation performed on a patient that has tested positive for the disease. A possible medical malpractice element came into play in this case when the hospital in North Carolina failed to send the contaminated instruments off to undergo enhanced sterilization procedures before using them in subsequent surgeries.

Health officials claim that the chances of transmitting the fatal disease are extremely rare, despite the need for heightened sterilization. What happens if thousands or even millions of patients are exposed to the possible risk, but only one actually develops the always-fatal disease? Problems don’t have to be widespread to become an issue; even isolated incidents of harm from a hospital error can become the basis of a medical malpractice lawsuit in Connecticut.

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

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