Three transplant patients have died as a result of receiving an organ from a donor who had unknowingly been infected with a common rodent virus. A fourth patient who received a kidney from the organ donor is recovering.
In what is believed to be only the second documented case in which the viral infection LCMV was transmitted through an organ transplant, four patients in all were infected and health officials say the infection has been traced to a female organ donor from Rhode Island who died of unrelated causes, but who was exposed to a common rodent virus, possibly from a pet hamster.
Health officials say that at least one pet in the woman's home, a hamster bought at a pet shop in Warwick tested positive for LCMV.
The officials say the dead were a liver transplant recipient and a double-lung recipient from Massachusetts and a kidney transplant recipient from Rhode Island. They died in late April and early May of lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, which is associated with exposure to rodent waste.
Another Rhode Island patient who received a kidney from the organ donor is recovering.
Two other people outside the United States received corneas in operations and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said they are investigating where those corneas went.
CDC spokesman Dave Daigle says they believe the hamster was the source, but they have not ruled out a common house mouse and they were testing the dead hamster to confirm the virus as the cause.
Health officials discovered the connection after a doctor at the Rhode Island hospital where one of the transplants was performed reported an unusual viral death. Investigators traced the death to the organ donor.
The virus LCMV is commonly found in house mice but usually produces only flu-like symptoms in humans. It has also been associated with neurological illness and miscarriage in pregnant women.
State Health Department director David Gifford says that because the transplant patients received large doses of medication that suppressed their immune systems, the virus was able to grow. He said, donated organs are not routinely screened for rodent viruses, and LCMV was not usually considered a threat to the organ supply.
Gifford says patients on the waiting list need not be concerned with this, as it is an extremely rare and unusual event.
The Petsmart pet shop where the donor bought the hamster has stopped selling mice and hamsters, and given its import and sales records to the state Department of Environmental Management.
Jennifer Pflugfelder, a spokeswoman for Phoenix-based Petsmart, said the CDC took away about 60 hamsters, mice and rats last week, and the remaining animals were taken from the shop Monday morning.
Gifford refused to identify the victims or the donor and would not say how old they were.
Dr. Matthew Kuehnert of the CDC says there has only been one previous instance of LCMV causing a transplant-related death in Wisconsin in December 2003, but it was not definitively linked to rodent exposure.