I just learned that a lawsuit was recently filed in Massachusetts Superior Court on behalf of a man who died one month after receiving a transplanted liver that was later determined to be infected with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). Apparently, the organ donor purchased a pet hamster from a PetSmart in Warwick, Rhode Island, and this hamster was later shown to be infected with this deadly virus.
LCMV is spread by the common house mouse, Mus musculus, and causes a potentially lethal disease in immunocompromised humans known as lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM). The symptoms of LCM in immunocompromised humans are serious; either aseptic meningitis, encephalitis or meningoencephalitis. However, testing has revealed that only 5% of house mice and hamsters actually carry this virus and they are infected asymptomatically. These rodents shed LCMV in their urine, feces and saliva, which is how most humans become exposed to it. However, exposure to LCMV cannot cause health problems in humans unless they already are in very poor health and are unable to mount an effective immune response. Further, epidemiological evidence shows that rodent-to-human transmission occurs only between house mice or — very rarely — pet hamsters.
According to the papers filed in Superior Court, an unnamed woman purchased a hamster from Petsmart in 2005 and died of a stroke shortly afterwards. She was an organ donor, so her liver was transplanted into Thomas Magee, who died of LCMV one month later. The transplant was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital in April 2005. Five days after the transplant occurred, according to the suit, Magee “was exhibiting high blood pressure and a fever.”
The immediate cause of Magee’s death was “determined to have been the dissemination of LCMV in the liver he received,” according to the court papers.
Tragically, two other people who received organs from this same organ donor subsequently died and another one became seriously ill, according to the court papers. The organ donor’s pet hamster was later tracked down and found to be infected with LCMV.
While I sympathize with this woman’s loss, I do not see how this hamster can be “proven” beyond reasonable doubt in court to be the definitive source of LCMV when there is so much more potential for a common household pest to be the source instead. For example, both the hamster and the deceased organ donor could have been infected by a house mouse or two that was living undetected in the donor’s house, but since infected rodents remain asymptomatic, it is impossible to know if they are infected with the virus or when this infection occurred, unless there is a lab somewhere that is doing some serious DNA fingerprinting studies (but who knows, maybe there is?).
What do you think about this case?
Woman Claims Sick Hamster, PetsMart Killed Her Hubby LineOfDuty (quotes).
Center for Disease Control’s Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Factsheet [PDF].
Rodent virus now linked to six deaths MSNBC News (background).