Sadly, four transplant patients in the Chicago area recently discovered that their new organs were infected with HIV and hepatitis C. This is the first case of infected organ donation in the past 20 years, with over 400,000 successful, healthy transplants completed in that time period.
I’m actually a little surprised that this is the only known case of infected organ transplants in the past two decades, since the tests to rule out HIV and hepatitis C rely on antibodies. It takes the body at least three weeks to produce antibodies to these viruses, and so people who are infected with HIV and hepatitis C have false negative tests for the first few weeks. So there is always the risk that an organ donor could have contracted these viruses within 3 weeks prior to his or her death.
I asked Dr. David Goldberg, an infectious disease specialist in Scarsdale, NY, to weigh in:
Are there any tests available now that can detect the viruses themselves, or only antibodies? How early after infection could we detect them?
Traditional serologies measure antibodies against the viruses which take weeks or months to develop, whereas there is a more rapid test, called “PCR,” that is a direct measure of the number of viruses in the blood.
HIV reproduces rapidly, so the virus can usually be detected in the bloodstream within 8 days of infection. By contrast, hepatitis C virus replicates more slowly, so the virus may not be detectable until as long as 8 weeks after exposure. So the use of the HIV PCR test in addition to antibody tests would pick up almost all cases of HIV, but the hepatitis C PCR might still miss a number of early infections.
How can we protect future organ recipients from such a tragic event?
PCR is not generally performed because the test is time-consuming and many organ donors are trauma victims, which leaves little time for testing. However, PCR testing could theoretically reduce the number of HIV infected organs that are transplanted (from recently infected individuals), but would not improve the odds in hepatitis C because of the slow growing nature of the virus. In the end there’s no perfect test or 100% guarantee that organ donors don’t have HIV or hepatitis C.
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.