Perspective: Why Does One Rabies Death Matter So Much?

Though truly tragic, this morning’s news that one kidney transplant recipient in Maryland contracted rabies and died in 2012 through the process of deceased organ donation in 2011, (CNN report of rabies death) must be kept in perspective. There can be no doubt that all parties involved intended to help save lives through organ donation – and that these organs were desperately needed. Indeed, tonight, there are 117,477 people on the U.S. waitlist for all organs. And each DAY in the U.S. 18 people whose lives might have been saved through organ donation die.

But transmission of unusual and unexpected infectious organisms like Rabies and Balamuthia (an amoeba known to cause encephalitis) has been previously reported through organ transplantation. The question to be asked in each case of potential organ donation and transplantation is which is greater, the risk of doing the transplant or the risk of NOT doing it. Surely, many of the people who have died awaiting transplants would have been eager to take such chances had they known they might still be alive > 1 year afterwards as 3 of these 4 “rabies tainted organ” recipients (1 kidney, 1 heart, 1 liver patient) apparently still are. These patients are alive and reported to have begun receiving anti-rabies therapy. We will learn together whether they survive – and we all certainly hope they will (I feel confident in speaking for us all).

So, keep in mind that our crucial task is to address the organ shortage, not to judge anyone involved in the 2011 donation and transplant that led to the unfortunate death on one person from rabies. While we grieve that loss, let’s be constructive, remember the big picture, use the death to motivate new memberships in organ donor registries organ donor registration and to urge journalists to be more responsible in their overall reporting about brain death brain death journalistic inaccuracies .

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