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Holbrook Mohr, AP

An extremely rare infection has been passed from an organ donor to at least one recipient in what is thought to be the first human-to-human transfer of this amoeba. Four people in three states received organs from a patient who died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in November after suffering from neurological problems, said Dave Daigle, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention.

Organs are routinely tested for HIV, hepatitis and other more common infections, but occasionally rare ones slip through. “We test for the known harmful diseases, but there's not a test for every single pathogen out there,” said Dr. Kenneth Kokko, medical director of kidney transplants at UMMC.

Two of the recipients are critically ill, but the others haven't shown symptoms, Daigle said. The CDC confirmed the presence Balamuthia mandrillaris in one of the recipients.

Dr. Shirley Schlessinger, a UMMC doctor and medical director of the Mississippi Organ Recovery Agency, would not say which states had patients receiving the organs. Balamuthia mandrillaris is a microscopic parasite found in soil that causes encephalitis in humans, horses, dogs, sheep and primates. Scientists think people get infected by breathing it in, but it can also pass into the blood through a cut or break in the skin. It is especially dangerous to those undergoing organ transplants, as their immune systems are purposely weakened so their bodies don't reject the new organs.

Only about 150 cases have been reported worldwide since the disease was first identified in 1990. But it can be hard to diagnose because few laboratories test for it and many doctors don't know about it. Some cases are not identified until autopsy.

“We don't want people to take this rare and extraordinary anomaly and think it speaks to a lack of safety,” she said. “It's very rare so the likelihood that this will happen again (is small), I mean, it's rarer than rabies.”

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