Transplantation associated rabies

There's an interesting and disturbing report in Clinical Infectious Diseases that describes the transplantation of organs to six recipients from a donor with undiagnosed rabies. The donor was a 26-year old woman who presented with an encephalitis-like picture and negative testing for the usual causes of encephalitis. Approximately six weeks post-transplant, it was noted that three of the recipients began to exhibit symptoms similar to the donor. Review of archived brain samples from the donor revealed characteristic histopathologic and electron microscopy findings of rabies. Further investigation about the donor revealed that she had traveled to India where she sustained a dog bite. All of the recipients were treated with rabies immune globulin and vaccine. The two cornea recipients underwent explantation of the corneas, did not become ill, never exhibited any virologic evidence of infection, and survived. The liver recipient also remained healthy and had no virologic evidence of infection; however, it is important to note that he had received rabies vaccine 20 years earlier. The other three recipients (lung, kidney, kidney/pancreas) all died of rabies despite aggressive treatment with the Milwaukee protocol.

A few months ago we blogged about two cases of Balamuthia encephalitis transmitted by an organ donor in Mississippi. Since then, at least one of the infected recipients has died. The common theme here is that both the rabies and Balamuthia infected donors died with undiagnosed encephalitides. While I agree with Eli that a complete analysis of the problem is warranted, I don't agree that actions should wait for the conclusions of such analysis. Interim actions should be taken. It seems to me that at a minimum there should be an immediate ban on transplanting organs from donors with undiagnosed encephalitides in cases where transplantation is not immediately life-saving (e.g., cornea, kidney, intestine, pancreas, musculoskeletal grafts). And where transplantation is potentially immediately life-saving (e.g., heart, liver), full disclosure of the donor's diagnosis and its implications should be made available as part of the informed consent process. I suspect that donors with undiagnosed encephalitides comprise a small fraction of the donor pool anyway, though I appreciate the scarcity of organs for transplantation.

Primum non nocere!


  1. It is hard to argue with Mike's logic. I do like the idea of a stepped approach, however, I hope that if a ban on transplantation is recommended it's accompanied by a funded research study to validate the overall public health impact of such a policy change.


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