Four patients in Taiwan mistakenly receive HIV-tainted organs from a donor

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Four patients who were awaiting vital organ transplants in Taiwan finally received them last week, only to discover the physicians who implanted the organs used the organs that came from HIV-infected patients.

In the U.S. it is illegal to transplant organs from HIV-infected patients, even into those who need organs who already have the disease. There has been a significant movement by HIV-positive patients to allow for organ donation by HIV-positive donors. If the person needing the organ already has HIV, they argue, why should it matter if the organ they so desperately need comes from a donor that has HIV?

In the U.S., there have also been cases of organs being mistakenly transplanted from HIV-positive patients into healthy patients. In 2007, four recipients in Chicago were given organs from a dead patient who tested negative. The test, however, was conducted too early, before the virus was able to be detected. In 2009, a transplant patient received a liver from a living patient who tested negative but in the time leading up to the operation engaged in sexual activity with someone who was HIV-positive and became infected with the disease. That case led to stricter testing laws in the U.S.

Taiwanese officials are now reporting that the doctors who performed the operations may face prosecution, including up to 10 years in prison if negligence is found to be the cause of any of the patients contracting HIV after they received the tainted organs.

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The organs – a liver, lungs and two kidneys – all came from one donor the doctors mistakenly believed was HIV negative. The operation to transplant the previously mentioned organs was performed at National Taiwan University Hospital in Taipei, and the operation to implant the patient’s heart was performed at National Chengkung University Hospital. NCUH did the operation in good faith based on the information received from NTUH.

Information about the donor’s HIV status was given over the telephone, and the person responsible for reporting it thought he heard the term “nonreactive” used when the donor’s HIV status was reported. The hospital admitting to not double-checking the donor’s status, even though procedure called for more than just someone’s word over the telephone.

Ke Wen-che, head of the University hospital’s transplant department, resigned Thursday in order to take blame for the mistake. His viewpoint was that all of the responsibility for the entire transplant program came down on his shoulders, and he declined to name any staffers involved in the incident.

Health Department Staffer Shih Chung-liang said it would be irresponsible and unfair to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of the staffer who mishandled the information over the phone. Chung-liang added that because of the mistake, the hospital might have to shut down its transplant program for up to a year and face significant fines.

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

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