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Four get AIDS virus from organ donor

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Feb 22, 2006
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An organ donor infected four transplant patients with the AIDS virus in what a donor group says is the first such transmission in the U.S. in at least 13 years.

The transplants occurred in January at three Chicago hospitals. The patients infected with HIV and the virus for hepatitis C did not learn of their status until the last two weeks, according to medical officials.

Dr. Michael Millis, chief of the transplantation program at the University of Chicago Hospitals, said his staff was told of the problem on Nov. 1, and brought in the two patients who had transplants there for testing the next morning.

"It was very surprising and devastating for them, I'll be honest, just as it would be for any of us," Millis said.

Initial tests on the donor for HIV, hepatitis and other conditions came back negative, most likely because the donor had acquired the infections in the last three weeks before death. Personal details about the donor were not released by medical official officials, who cited privacy laws.

Based on the negative test results, doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and the University of Chicago Medical Center went ahead with the transplants. Officials did not say which organs were transplanted.

The right procedures were followed in testing the donor, said Alison Smith, vice president for operations at Gift of Hope.

Joel Newman, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, said there has not been another known case of HIV being transmitted from a donor to a recipient since federal high-risk donor guidelines were adopted in 1994.

Those guidelines were made in response to a 1985 case, when the AIDS virus was still relatively new and few safeguards were in place to prevent transmission.

Newman said Tuesday that officials were checking to see if there were any other similar cases before 1994.

Since the 1985 case, in which AIDS killed three patients who'd received organs from a Virginia man, there have been more than 400,000 organ transplants in the U.S. without a reported case of transmission through organs.

Millis said he thinks the process can be improved but may never be completely failproof.

"The organ supply is extraordinarily safe, but this has demonstrated that it's not 100 percent safe and it is never going to be 100 percent safe, at least with technology we have today," Millis said.