Alecia Mercer, 20, of Trenton, NC announced yesterday that she was not surprised to learn her 3-year old son’s father, William Edward Small was the air-force mechanic whose rabies-infected organs were transplanted into several recipients. Among the unsuspecting victims was a Maryland man who died after receiving an infected kidney. The type of rabies he contracted through the donation was called "rabies virus-a raccoon type," which is very uncommon in humans. Only one other person has reportedly died from this form, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Small’s other kidney, liver and heart went to people in Illinois, Florida and Georgia. Luckily, none have come down with rabies thus far. However, each have begun getting the rabies vaccine.
Small had been in the Air Force for 17 weeks before he died. He visited a clinic at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in August 2011 for abdominal pain and vomiting and was transferred to a civilian hospital four days later, where he died a Defense Department spokeswoman said last week. Although the original cause of death was attributed to a stomach virus, it has now been changed to rabies according to military and state officials.
“He did a lot of trapping and hunting and stuff,” Mercer told the Associated Press. “He didn’t care what the animal looked like. He just picked it up.” She also noted that neither she, nor the child had seen Smalls since December 2010, several months before he joined the military. Nor had they visited him in the hospital.
The Defense Department confirmed that the donor had seizures and encephalitis -- a brain inflammation that can be caused by rabies. However, those symptoms can also be caused by a variety of bacterial, viral and other more common conditions.
"Rabies is very unusual, and it can look like a lot of different things," Dr. Matthew Kuehnert, director of the CDC's Office of Blood, Organ, and Other Tissue Safety, said. "I personally can't say I would have been able to make the correct diagnosis had I been there, without knowing what I know now."
All potential organ donations in the U.S. are screened and tested for infections, and interviews are conducted with family members and close contacts to determine if there are any diseases that may be spread. While HIV or hepatitis are commonly tested for, rabies screenings aren't usually performed unless there are suspicious signs.