As we reported on May 25, health officials have now 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.
Recently, 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. In fact, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it was not until one of the doctors, Dr. Staci Fischer, contacted the CDC that the connection to LCVM and the organ donorâ€™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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), state health officials, and medical experts are not only investigating the deadly occurrences but, also, asking doctors and hospitals to carefully monitor all organ transplant patients and blood transfusion recipients for any unusual illnesses. They are also recommending 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.