Last week, a pet distribution center in Ohio, which sends hamsters, gerbils, and mice (“pocket pets”) to stores throughout the east coast of the U.S., was linked to the infected hamster that caused the deaths of three organ transplant recipients in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Now that four more infected hamsters have been found at Mid-South Distributors of Ohio, 4,000 small pets that have been quarantined there will be destroyed according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first linked Mid-South to the original infected hamster where subsequent testing revealed the presence of the other sick animals.
As we first reported on May 25, health officials linked the deaths of at least six transplant patients to a viral infection known as LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus). The virus is carried by approximately 5% of all rodents and is usually spread to humans through contact with infected animals or their feces or urine.
About 2% of the general population has antibodies to the virus which means that those individuals have been exposed at some point in their lives. LCMV usually causes few problems for healthy people.
The results can be quite different (and deadly), however, for those whose immune systems have been compromised by diseases like cancer or AIDS or as a result of taking immune-suppressing drugs designed to prevent organ rejection.
Two kidneys, a liver, and two lungs taken from a donor in Rhode Island, who died of a stroke, were transplanted into four patients in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Three of the recipients died within weeks of receiving the organs. Tests revealed that a hamster owned by the donor was infected with LCMV.
In December 2003, three organ recipients died in Wisconsin under similar circumstances. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin deaths were not regarded as a public health threat at the time since there was apparently no evidence that the virus was spread from person-to-person. Thus, no public statement was made about the occurrences.
The doctors in the New England cases did not learn about the Wisconsin deaths until it was too late to save at least one of the latest victims. It was not until one of the doctors, Dr. Staci Fischer, contacted the CDC that the connection to LCVM and the organ donor’s infected hamster was made. Dr. Fischer believes that had she had the information earlier; “it would have made a difference for our other patient.”
Although such events are extremely rare, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state health officials, and medical experts immediately began an investigation into the deadly occurrences and started asking doctors and hospitals to carefully monitor all organ transplant patients and blood transfusion recipients for any unusual illnesses. They also recommended careful testing of all donated organs and blood.
No commercial test exists for LCMV and it is not one of the viruses for which tests are routinely performed on organs.