Prion contamination in the emergency room

prion conversionHere is a follow-up to last week’s article that described a case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in a Texas resident caused by ingestion of BSE-contaminated beef 14 years ago.

A 59 year old male patient was admitted to the trauma unit in Lancaster, PA with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. There was substantial bleeding and brain tissue extrusion from the bullet exit wound. While the patient was intubated, examination of his electronic health records revealed a previous diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD). After discussion with his family, the breathing tube was removed and the patient expired.

After discovering that the patient had CJD, TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy) decontamination protocols were initiated. Equipment and surfaces that had been exposed to highly infectious brain tissues were identified. Because prions are extremely difficult to destroy, it was decided to incinerate many pieces of equipment costing tens of thousands of dollars. This decision was taken to protect workers in the trauma unit and future hospital patients from hospital-acquired CJD.

The usual sterilization conditions (121 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes under high pressure) do not destroy prion protein infectivity. Consequently the World Health Organization recommends incineration of potentially contaminated materials. While environmental transmission of prion diseases has not been reported, WHO suggests rinsing surfaces with sodium hydroxide or sodium hypochlorite for 1 hour, followed by flooding with water, to remove prions.

This case illustrates the problems associated with an unusual infectious agent, the prion, that is difficult to inactivate. It also shows the value of electronic health records. Without such readily accessible information, the discovery that the patient had CJD would have been substantially delayed, leading to further contamination.

Creutzfeldt-Jacob associated deaths have increased slowly but steadily in the US since 1979. The number of cases will likely continue to increase until early diagnosis tests become routinely available, and drugs are developed that can cure the disease.

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  • Elizabeth Jonas Garcia

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