A Maryland man recently died of rabies that he contracted from a tainted kidney he received in a transplant operation a year and a half ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
Health care teams are now giving anti-rabies shots to three other patients who received organs from the same donor as the patient, the CDC said.
The Maryland man and three other people — in Florida, Georgia and Illinois — received organs from a person who died in Florida in 2011.
Coincidentally, both the donor and the recipient who died are members of the military. The donor was a 20-year-old airman who was training to be an aviation mechanic in Pensacola, and the recipient was a retired Army veteran, according to the Department of Defense.
Doctors knew the donor had encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, when they harvested the organs. However, no rabies test was done before the before the donor’s kidneys, heart and liver were delivered for transplantation in September 2011, the CDC said.
The Maryland recipient died February 27 at the VA Medical Center in Washington, and doctors at the CDC diagnosed rabies as the cause of death. The CDC then examined autopsy tissue from the donor and determined he had died of the same type of rabies, which is spread by raccoons, according to the CDC.
Health officials immediately contacted doctors caring for the other three organ recipients. They show no signs of rabies but are being treated with five doses of the rabies vaccine and rabies immune globulin, which gives the body antibodies to protect itself against the rabies virus. Both treatments are shots in the upper arm.
Dr. Matthew Kuehnert, director of the CDC’s Office of Blood, Organ, and Other Tissue Safety, said the recipients’ doctors were shocked to learn the donor’s organs were tainted with rabies.
“Their first reaction was that it seemed unlikely because it’s been almost a year and a half since the transplant,” he said.
In the only other U.S. outbreak of rabies among organ recipients, the four patients died within a month of transplant in 2004.
The three other recipients are being tested for rabies, and health authorities are looking for family members or health care workers who might have had close contact with the donor or the recipient who died to see if they might also have the disease, said CDC spokeswoman Melissa Dankel.