This past week we learned that 15 patients in New England were exposed to a rare infection called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) when neurosurgical instruments contaminated with the infection were used in their care. Each had undergone a brain or spinal surgery in early 2013, and now their future was uncertain.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease takes years to develop. Patients exposed to the infection feel fine for years but then they become moodier and forgetful and over the course of months subtle cognitive defects progress to severe dementia. Patients with CJD forget the names and faces of loved ones, they lose the ability to walk, speak, or swallow, and they lapse into a coma that has proven fatal one hundred percent of the time.
When Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease contamination of surgical instruments is discovered, doctors at Catholic Medical Center and other hospitals wonder if it is right to tell patients. In most cases the disease will never occur and there is no effective means of prevention. Even for the unlucky patients who do develop the disease – if any of them do – there is no effective therapy so advance warning gives no extra measure of hope. Worse still, there is no diagnostic test to predict who will escape infection or die, so the only thing patients can do once notified is wait. That means the only real world impact of disclosure, regardless of the eventual outcome, is patient distress. So in this case is knowledge power, or is knowledge just knowledge?