The Defense Department says a man whose organs were donated to four people before it was learned he had rabies was in the Air Force.
Spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith identified the donor as a 20-year-old North Carolina man who had been in the Air Force for about 17 weeks before he died in 2011. He was training to become an aviation mechanic in Pensacola, Fla., when he became sick.
A Maryland patient who received one of the man’s kidneys later died of rabies. Authorities are treating three other people who got organs from the donor.
Public health officials say they’re trying to identify people in five states who were in close contact with the donor or the recipients.
The man who died had received the kidney more than a year ago. The recipients of the donor’s other kidney, heart and liver are getting anti-rabies shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a news release Friday. Those patients live in Florida, Georgia and Illinois.
The Maryland patient’s death more than a week ago prompted an investigation by state health officials that led to the announcement Tuesday of the state’s first human death from rabies since 1976. Such deaths are rare, with typically just one to three cases diagnosed per year in the U.S., the CDC said.
The investigation revealed that the Maryland recipient had no reported animal exposures, the usual source of rabies transmission to humans. Investigators then confirmed that both the Maryland recipient and the Florida donor had died from the same type of raccoon rabies virus, the CDC said.
This type of type of rabies virus can infect not only raccoons but also other wild and domestic animals. In the United States, only one other person is reported to have died from a raccoon-type rabies virus, the CDC said.
The organ transplants occurred more than a year before the Maryland recipient became ill and died, a period much longer than the typical rabies incubation period of one to three months. There have been other cases of such long incubation periods, however, the CDC said.
The donor died at a Florida medical facility. At the time of the donor’s death, rabies wasn’t suspected as the cause and testing for rabies was not performed, the CDC said. Rabies was only recently confirmed as the cause of death after the current investigation began in Maryland, the agency said.
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