The death of two organ transplant recipients from AIDS is a clear reminder of the insidious nature of this human immunodeficiency virus. The donor, a 22-year-old Virginia man, was shot to death during a robbery in 1985. Doctors who recommended using his organs to help other people live had no way of knowing the murder victim had contracted AIDS, because his tissues reportedly tested negative for the virus.
That didn't tell the whole story, it turns out. The man apparently contracted the disease shortly before he was killed. Widely used tests for AIDS look for antibodies, which show that a person has been exposed to the virus, rather than the virus itself, so a recent infection could easily have been missed. As a result, a heart-transplant patient and a kidney recipient are dead despite the best efforts of their doctors, and a third victim, a bone-marrow recipient, now tests positive for the disease.
Medical authorities say most of the murder victim's body parts were treated with alcohol, which can kill the virus, or irradiated before being shipped to some 30 hospitals. But HIV, a trickster under ordinary circumstances, has demonstrated chilling abilities to hide in cells not originally thought to be susceptible to its attack and to camouflage its genetic makeup to confuse immune-system responses. Too much alcohol or irradiation would destroy the tissues being transplanted, leaving open the possibility that HIV could also survive in still more hiding places. In any case, certain body parts, including bone marrow, soft tissues and the pancreas, would not have been treated. So 53 organ and tissue recipients, whose lives were already at risk, now face even greater jeopardy.