Tests this week revealed the virus was a type found in raccoons in North Carolina and Virginia. The man was from North Carolina but hadn’t returned home after enlisting in the Air Force 17 weeks before his death. That suggests the virus had been incubating for months before it made him ill.
Those are among the facts epidemiologists are stitching together as they reconstruct a tragic sequence of events that ended in late February with Maryland’s first fatal case of rabies in 36 years.
“We are questioning the donor’s family and friends. We know that he was an avid hunter and fisherman. He might have come into contact with wildlife somehow. We don’t know more at this time,” Richard Franka, head of the rabies laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.
Whether it’s too risky to use organs from people who die in a coma of unknown causes has been debated by the U.S. transplant community for several years. A 2011 study showed that over a recent three-year period, seven people had developed brain infections, three of them fatal, from donated organs.
In June 2012, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) warned transplant teams that “extreme caution is urged” before using organs from people with encephalitis — brain inflammation — that might be caused by untreatable viruses such as rabies and West Nile. It did not issue a blanket prohibition.
“The devil is in the details,” said Michael D. Green, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Pittsburgh who heads UNOS’s Disease Transmission Advisory Committee. “But clearly one needs to be exceptionally cautious.”
There are differing reports whether the airman’s physicians thought he had encephalitis.
The man spent four days at the air station’s hospital in late August 2011 after suffering abdominal pain and vomiting, according to Cynthia Smith, a Department of Defense spokeswoman. As he became more ill, he was transferred to a civilian hospital in Pensacola, which hasn’t been identified. There he became confused, developed respiratory problems and lapsed into unconsciousness. He was declared brain dead on Sept. 7, 2011.
Other people involved in the investigation say the airman’s physicians initially thought he had ciguatera, a food-borne illness caused by toxins that accumulate in the flesh of saltwater fish feeding on certain reef microorganisms. By the time of his death, however, that had been ruled out.