Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Portrait of a murderer:
A Siberian dwarf hamster, Phodopus sungorus.

Orphaned image.

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?

Sources

Story Reuters.

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).

Comments

  1. #1 PalMD
    April 13, 2008

    Epidemiologically and microbiologically it will be an interesting case (yes, and tragic), but even if a straight line is drawn between the isoate from the humans and the hamster, I’m not sure who should be held liable, if anyone. IANAL, but suing petsmart would seem silly.

    I don’t know enough about transplant medicine to know if LCMV is tested for in donors but I suspect not.

    Transplants are serious medicine, and depending on the organ transplanted, not without significant risk. It sucks, but it happens, and we can learn from it, unless grieving family members start aiming litigation everywhere.

  2. #2 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 13, 2008

    Even beyond the issue of showing that the LCMV came from this particular hamster, it isn’t at all clear to me that Petsmart was in any way negligent. The normal burden of care doesn’t require petstores to test of LCMV or anything like that. Now maybe they should, but it is hard to argue that a store not doing so is being negligent in some substantial way.

  3. #3 Hadyn
    April 13, 2008

    I can’t say much about the disease but I can recommend a film (which is why your title caught my eye). Night of the Hell Hamsters (though only one person dies in it)
    http://www.nightofthehellhamsters.com

  4. #4 biosparite
    April 13, 2008

    I don’t trust any rodent that lacks a significant tail. Gerbils rule!

  5. #5 T. Bruce McNeely
    April 13, 2008

    At least it wasn’t a rabbit:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcxKIJTb3Hg

  6. #6 DeafScientist
    April 13, 2008

    I would have thought that since it can more-or-less be only caught from faeces, etc., and that the pet owner’s hygiene is the person’s responsibility not the pet’s (!), that it should stop with the pet owner at least. As for the transplant services, in an ideal world they would screen all viruses (and a whole host of other things), but I can imagine that’s not practically possible (at this point in time). But then I know diddly-squat about legal issues in the USA and from overseas some cases look distinctly bizarre!

  7. #7 Emory K.
    April 13, 2008

    To GrrlScientist – As this is a civil liability case, not a criminal trial, the plaintiff only has to show a preponderance of evidence that the virus came from the hamster. They do not have to prove it “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Just show the odds are better than even, and they win.

    To PalMD – Petsmart has very deep pockets, and you always sue the deepest pockets in a civil liability case. Next, you don’t really have to do anything scientifically or morally wrong to still be liable in a civil case. (Suppose you very carefully train your dog to be peaceful, but it bites somebody anyway. You did everything right, but you’re still liable.) Finally, suppose the jury finds Petsmart shares only 10% of the blame, but the total award is $10 million. Nice payout.

  8. #8 Jane
    April 13, 2008

    Do I smell a future House episode?

  9. #9 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 13, 2008

    Deaf, it isn’t just not cost effective to screen transplants for everything but it is actively a bad idea. There are already serious shortages of organs. For many diseases the false positives will be as common or even more common than the actual cases. (This isn’t any fault of the tests. Consider a disease that shows up only 1/1000 subjects and a test that returns a false negative 1 in every hundred negative subjects). While I don’t know the numbers for LCMV I wouldn’t be surprised if more lives were actually lost if testing for it were implemented.

  10. #10 JPS
    April 13, 2008

    Its unlikely petsmart will be held liable. If someone is legally liable for negligence the harm had to be reasonably foreseeable to the accused. The harm also has to be directly caused by the defendant. The accused must also have an obligation to act carefully so that the plaintiffs would not be harmed.

    Considering that the people harmed were not customers of petsmart, petsmart has little duty to act carefully towards them. How could petsmart be reasonably expected to know that a resident in a household with a petsmart hamster would be infected with a rare virus, then die unrelated to the virus, then be a organ donater, then the donatees get sick and die allegedly due to this virus?

    Its a sad, but its really a freak accident. Freak accidents rarely result in legal liability.

  11. #11 hams
    April 14, 2008

    I hate to say it, but as a long-time hamster owner, this isn’t a total surprise. Hamsters can, and do, occasionally transmit illness to their owners. Pregnant women, the immunocompromised, and very young children, are not supposed to get a new hamster especially from a pet store. Because most of the viruses clear after a while, a hamster that’s been in a home for over 6 months is usually safe. I don’t think people have enough awareness about this, similar to how many don’t know that reptiles have salmonella. They just think it’s a cute safe pet and that’s it.

  12. #12 1hen2ducks
    April 14, 2008

    Offer the hamster a choice of either;

    death by hanging,

    or

    a standard combat tour of duty with the US Army stationed in Iraq.

    That should keep the rosy footed little bugger out of our hair for several years or much much longer ….

    Be Well & don’t fall down anymore, please

    1hen2ducks

  13. #13 Bob O'H
    April 14, 2008

    Why is the hamster in the photo wringing its hand like that? What’s it planning now?

  14. #14 "GrrlScientist"
    April 14, 2008

    hrm .. well, if you noticed it was wringing its hands, you must have also noticed that it has .. OMG .. HAIRY PALMS!

    so that might help you guess the little furball’s thoughts ..

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