New virus found in Australia deaths

Australian doctors revealed Sunday that three people who died shortly after receiving organ transplants from the same donor were all infected with a previously unknown virus.

The virus was found in three Melbourne patients who died just weeks after they received organs from a 57-year-old man who suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage one week after returning from Europe.

Australian officials said the infection was similar to lymphocytic choreomeningitis virus (LCMV), which was linked to the deaths of several transplant patients in the United States last year.

“I’m very pleased that out of a sad episode we’ve been able to draw some conclusions and find something new in a world first,” Dr Mike Catton from the Victorian Infectious Disease Laboratory said.

“It’s a new virus and it’s a new way of finding the virus.”

Catton said tests carried out with the assistance of the Greene Infectious Disease Laboratory at Columbia University in New York looked at tissue samples taken from the dead tranplant patients using new gene sequencing techniques.

The new virus was found in all samples taken from the transplant recipients but not in tissue taken from the donor.

“The fact that we haven’t yet discovered it in the donor doesn’t rule out the fact that this was transmitted from donor to recipient,” he said.

“There’s much work that needs to be done characterising this virus in both laboratories and that will be continuing as we speak.”

Catton said doctors did not know yet how many people could be infected with the virus or whether it has killed anyone in the past.

But Australian officials insisted that the new virus did not pose a threat to the community and was not thought to be an infectious disease.

“Organ transplant recipients are hit with a variety of drugs to suppress their immune system so that they don’t reject the organ that’s transplanted,” Victoria state’s acting chief health officer Dr John Carnie said.

“So if you’re immuno-depressed, any kind of infection can have devastating consequences, whether it’s the common cold or influenza or anything like that.”

Australian doctors began investigating in January when three women who received organs from the same donor died within days of each other and no common cause could be established between the deaths.

Two women, aged 63 and 44, each received a kidney while the donor’s liver went to a 64-year-old woman.

Carnie said he hoped the discovery did not lead to calls to stop the transplant programme.

“This may be an extremely rare one-off event and we don’t want to deprive people of the benefits of a liver or kidney or something else that would be life-saving for some event that may be extremely rare,” he said.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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