Rodents Infected with Potentially Deadly Virus May Have Been Shipped to Pet Stores in Wisconsin

According to recent reports, no major pet retailers have received shipments from Mid- South Distributors in Ohio, a pet distribution center for hamsters, gerbils, and mice (“pocket pets”) to stores along the east coast of the U.S., which, in July, was linked to the infected hamster that caused the deaths of three organ transplant recipients in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, found some evidence that Mid-South may have made shipments to the state of Wisconsin. The CDC, however, could neither find invoices naming specific stores that received shipments from Mid-South nor information on the type or quantity of rodents that might have been shipped to the state.  

Two large pet retail chains, Petco and Petsmart, have reassured health officials that there is no cause for concern regarding their animals. Petco said Mid-South Distributors does not supply its stores in Wisconsin.

Petsmart said that while its stores in Wisconsin may have received shipments from the Mid-South in the past, the company has not supplied any animals to its stores recently. Any remaining Mid-South pets have been removed from the sales floor.

The current information from Wisconsin follows reports in July in which the Ohio Department of Agriculture disclosed that lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus LCMV was found in four more hamsters at the Norwich location of Mid-South and 4,000 small pets that had been quarantined there would be destroyed.

An investigation by the CDC first linked Mid-South to the original infected hamster and 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 LCMV. 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.

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