Air Force recruit and outdoorsman William Edward Small, 20, got sick after a fishing trip in Florida, later succumbing to his illness. It was later discovered that Small had traces of the rabies virus within his body. According to the New York Post, investigators learned that Small trapped raccoons to train hunting dogs, and contracted rabies from these animals shortly before his death. Unfortunately, this information was not made available during the organ procurement process and four people ended up with life-saving transplants from Small.
For one recipient however, what should have been a renewed chance at life instead brought death. A report published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed that Small’s rabies-infected kidney caused encephalitis in a patient’s body, which is a form of brain inflammation brought on by rabies. Subsequent lab testing found that the rabies virus discovered in the kidney recipient’s body was nearly identical to the one in Small. The illness took a remarkably long time to manifest itself in the patient, about a year and a half.
“If you don’t ask specific questions, you don’t get specific answers,” said Dr. Michael Green, an advisory committee chairman for the United Network for Organ Sharing. “At the time these questions are being asked initially, families are often traumatized, in shock. They’re losing a loved one. They may not be thinking normally or straight or remember all those details.”
The other three patients who received organ transplants from Small are still considered at risk. They are currently being treated with anti-rabies medicine and are being monitored by doctors, who say the patients remain well.
This kind of rabies transfer is rare but may cause a change in the way organs for donation are screened. The United Network for Organ Sharing urges doctors to be cautious when using organs from donors with central nervous infections, yet others say that screening should not be strict to the point of excluding perfectly healthy organs.
As always, care should be taken around raccoons and other animals that can carry rabies. Because the virus is transmitted through saliva and contact with certain tissues, experts advise washing any animal-inflicted wounds immediately and to seek help from a medical professional if you suspect rabies.