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Thieves nab discarded equipment used to test patient with mad-cow-like disease

By Marni Jameson, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Medical equipment used to detect a brain disease similar to mad cow has been stolen from Florida Hospital’s main campus, and the equipment may pose a public health risk.

Hospital surveillance cameras captured footage of a white pickup with dark panels on the truck bed taking a medical scanner and lab machines from the hospital’s Center for Diagnostic Pathology, according to the Orlando Police Department. The agency is investigating the May 3 theft.

The hospital was discarding the equipment valued at $500,000 because it had been used to perform a brain biopsy on a deceased patient who ultimately tested positive for prion disease, a form of which is mad cow disease in humans.

Responding to rumors that were beginning to circulate, hospital spokeswoman Samantha O’Lenick said, “Florida Hospital has not had a patient with a diagnosis of mad cow disease.

“However, within the past month, it did have a patient who underwent a (brain) biopsy and the pathology report came back indicating that the tissue sample was positive for prion disease that suggests CJD,” she said. Further testing is underway.

CJD is a fatal, degenerative brain disease that occurs when prion proteins in the brain become abnormal. In classic CJD this happens spontaneously. That is, patients don’t catch it.

However, a variant of CJD occurs in humans who have eaten beef from cattle infected with mad cow disease.

The biopsy at Florida Hospital took place in mid April, O’Lenick said. Lab results indicating probable CJD came back within six days. “We immediately took the equipment off line and weren’t using it.”

Lab experts whom the hospital staff consulted said the hospital did not need to discard the equipment if it was properly sanitized. However, “in an abundance of caution, we decided to dispose of the equipment,” O’Lenick said.

Though few in number, some cases in which CJD was transmitted to patients from contaminated equipment have occurred.

Florida Hospital workers were going through the process of properly disposing of the potentially contaminated equipment when it was stolen.

Classic CJD affects about 1 in 1 million Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most patients die within a year of onset. Last year, there were 11 cases in Florida, according to the Orange County Health Department. No cases of mad cow in humans have occurred in Florida, and only three have been reported in the United States.

The tissue sample from the Florida Hospital patient has been sent to a lab that specializes in prion disease testing.

The chances of this being mad cow in humans “are unlikely,” said Mirna Chamorro, spokeswoman for the county health department.

“We’re confident that the nature of the CJD poses no significant risk of transmission to patients, employees or the public,” O’Lenick said. “We’re confident this is an isolated incident.”

In April, the first case of mad cow disease to surface in the United States in six years occurred in a dairy cow in California.

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