Hong Kong Fears 111
Infected in 'Mad Cow' Scare
By Carrie Lee
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong authorities said on Thursday that a
medical test might have infected 111 hospital
patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), the human equivalent of
"mad cow" disease, and that seven of the patients
had since died.
"According to our information, seven patients have already died,"
Hospital Authority deputy director Doctor Kathleen So
told a hastily arranged news conference.
But another deputy director of the authority, Doctor Ko Wing-man, said
it was not yet clear if CJD had killed the seven.
He said it would have been "almost impossible" for CJD to have caused
the deaths because the incubation period for the
disease, which destroys brain tissue, lasts a number of years.
"We are very confident that it is almost impossible for them to have
died of the disease," Ko said. However, he said
authorities had yet to identify the causes of the deaths.
Ko said two lots of chemicals suspected of being contaminated with a
protein that could cause CJD, known as CJD's
"causative agent," had been used on 111 patients in six public
hospitals in Hong Kong from July to December last year
for the management of certain heart and lung diseases.
He said the supplier of the chemicals, known as test reagents, was a
British-based company which would be named later.
A test reagent is a radioactive chemical injected into a patient to
help diagnose certain diseases.
"The Hospital Authority has decided to contact and inform the patients
involved for follow-up assessments and
counseling," Ko said. The Authority is a government-funded body that
runs Hong Kong's public hospitals.
Ko said contamination of the test reagents was suspected after one of
the donors of a pool of albumin, a protein, used to
make the test reagents died of CJD in Britain.
"The company or the authorities in the UK came to know about the
problem only after one of the donors of the pool of
albumin which was used to manufacture the test reagent died," Ko said.
"And he died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."
The patient's albumin might have contaminated the test reagents with
the CJD causative agent, although this could not be
confirmed, he said. "There is no way to test whether there is any
causative agent in the test reagent."
The manufacturer had already recalled the affected test reagents from
the hospital, he said.
Ko stressed CJD was a very rare disease that occurred in less than one
person per million each year.
He added that the chance of infection was "very remote and extremely
low" for the Hong Kong patients who were
injected with the test reagent in their medical tests.
"The test procedure involves the injection of a small volume of test
reagent, which contains a very minute portion of the
pool of albumin suspected to be contaminated by the causative agent of
CJD," Ko said.
"The risk of contracting the disease through administration of test
reagents containing contaminated albumin is extremely
remote and there is so far no confirmed case of transmission through
blood transfusion or use of blood products," Ko
But he acknowledged there was not yet any proven test to predict if
the patients who were exposed to the reagent would
contract the disease eventually.
"There is no established test to predict whether a person will develop
CJD and there is no known treatment," he said.
"The patients are advised not to donate blood or organs."
He said the incubation period for CJD could be as long as 20 years.
"Mad cow" disease, whose medical name is bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE), plunged Britain's beef industry
into chaos two years ago and prompted a global export ban on the meat
and mass slaughter of British cows.
The European Union voted last week to support a proposal allowing a
partial resumption of exports from Northern
The world-wide ban was imposed on Britain by the EU in March 1996
after the British government admitted a possible
link between BSE and its deadly human equivalent, CJD.
Hong Kong has already endured one recent health scare involving
livestock as more than 1 million poultry were killed late
last month to control an outbreak of avian flu blamed for several
human deaths.
A string of medical blunders in the former British colony last year
sparked an uproar and eroded confidence in the health
and hygiene standards of one of the world's richest cities.
In one case, a nurse almost killed a patient by transfusing milk into
his veins instead of blood. In another a surgeon
removed part of a young woman's reproductive organs, thinking it was
her appendix.
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