Health officials have now linked the deaths of six transplant patients to a viral infection known as LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus).
The virus is carried by approximately 5 percent of mice, hamsters, and other rodents and is usually spread through contact with infected animals or their feces or urine. About 2 percent 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, and bought at a Petsmart store in Warwick, R.I., was infected with LCMV. In December 2003, three organ recipients died in Wisconsin under similar circumstances.
Although such events are extremely rare, they do raise questions as to whether there should be changes with respect to the procedures currently in use with respect to testing donated organs. No commercial test exists for LCMV and it is not one of the viruses for which tests are routinely performed on organs.