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Rabies-infected organ donor was thought to be poisoned by fish

The Air Force service member infected with rabies before his organs were transplanted into several patients — including one Marylander who died — was thought previously to have been poisoned by a type of fish.

Kathy Giery, a director at LifeQuest Organ Recovery Services in Gainesville, Fla., said Monday that the organ recovery service oversaw the transplant process from the rabies-infected donor. The hospital where the donor died told the organ service the person was poisoned by ciguatera, a toxin found in certain kinds of fish, she said.

In February, a Marylander became the first person to die of rabies in the state since 1976. Tests since the Maryland resident's death revealed that the donor and recipient had the same type of rabies. Three other people across the country who received organs from the same rabies-infected donor are being treated for the disease, health officials said last week.

The Associated Press identified the donor Monday as William Edward Small, 20, of North Carolina, who was serving in Florida with the Air Force at the time of his death in September 2011. Health officials have declined to identify or release information about either the donor or the Maryland resident who died.

An investigation is continuing into how the donor contracted rabies. It is typically contracted through a bite from an infected animal, and once a human starts showing symptoms, the disease is nearly always fatal. It can take up to a year before symptoms appear.

LifeQuest tests organs for numerous diseases, including HIV and hepatitis, but not rabies, Giery said.

"Not only is it exceptionally rare that a human would be infected with rabies … but if a potential organ donor were suspected of having rabies, we would not proceed," Giery said.

In the past decade, about five cases of rabies infection in humans have been reported nationwide every year; rabies infections from organ transplants are rare. Experts say there is probably not enough time to test for rabies within the period that an organ remains viable.



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