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Organ donation spread fatal rabies to recipient

Receiving an organ donation has risks, as people in Illinois know, but those who need a new heart, kidney or other vital organ to survive rely on the organ donation process to ensure that those organs are safe and free from disease. That system failed in a case where doctors did not determine that an organ donor had died of rabies until after four patients had received his organs. One of those patients died of rabies as a result of this possible medical malpractice.

The incident drew the attention of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which published a report of its investigation on July 23. The CDC is now calling for improved screening techniques before deciding whether a deceased person is a good candidate for organ donation in the report.

The donor was taking a fishing break from his Air Force training when he became ill. At the time, doctors misdiagnosed him with food poisoning when in reality he was suffering from rabies that he likely contracted from one of two raccoon bite incidents several months earlier. After he passed away, doctors cleared him for organ donation without learning about the bites.

Four people received organs as a result. One of them, who received a kidney, died of rabies in February.

The CDC investigators criticized doctors involved for not testing the donor for rabies. They said that they found evidence of rabies in his brain tissue. Observers also say that the physicians should have asked his relatives more specific questions to screen for rabies and other infectious diseases that would have disqualified him for donation.

Organ donation is one of the most generous things any of us can do after we die. But the process can harm those we are trying to help if doctors do not take care to ensure that the donation is safe first.

Source: CBS News, “Study: Organ donor with rabies had 2 raccoon bites,” July 23, 2013

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