A Dublin hospital is to provide counselling and advice to 20 patients who may have contracted mad cow disease or CJD.

Medical experts and management at Beaumont Hospital are to meet the 20 patients and their families on Saturday after the scare came to light.

The Irish Times reports that a review has identified up to 20 patients who are at risk as a result of being operated on with the same instruments that were used on the patient later diagnosed with CJD.

The report says Ireland’s health authority, the HSE, defended the hospital’s handling of the situation by pointing out that the instruments were withdrawn once CJD was suspected and before a full diagnosis was made.

The HSE has confirmed that in excess of 1,300 people contacted a helpline to provide information to worried patients.

A statement from the HSE said: “We have contacted virtually all patients, or their family members, who were operated on using the instruments.”

“The patients have been told they have a slightly higher risk of getting CJD and will need to take precautions to prevent any further transmission of the disease in the unlikely event they have been infected.”

Experts who had previously estimated the risk of the other patients getting the disease as slightly above one in a million, are now scaling it is down to one in 400,000.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, head of health protection at the HSE, told the paper that it is impossible to know the exact risk faced by up to 20 affected patients.

But US based expert Michael Payne described the risk of transmission as ‘pretty high’.

Research operations manager at the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Centre in Cleveland,  Payne said that the prion proteins which cause the disease survive normal sterilisation processes and pose a risk to both patients and staff exposed to them.

He stressed that CJD is not contagious and prions must come into contact with an open wound for the disease to be transmitted.

Payne said the only way to decontaminate equipment exposed to CJD was to use powerful solutions of bleach or sodium hydroxide and then to sterilise it at high temperatures for over four hours.

The Irish Times says Beaumont Hospital claims it has traced all of the surgical instruments involved in the current case.

Ireland’s Health Minister James Reilly is to seek reassurances from the HSE and the hospital that the protocols in place to prevent a recurrence were sufficient.

He said: “There is no clinical suspicion to suggest a case of CJD was involved at the time the patient was operated on.”