Pittsburgh hospital suspends organ transplants after mold infections, deaths

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  • Fungus infections occasionally happen in transplant patients, and they can be deadly
  • The common mold is harmless to people with relatively normal immune systems

(CNN)A Pittsburgh hospital has temporarily stopped organ transplants after three transplant patients contracted a fungal infection and died.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center voluntarily suspended transplants at UMC Presbyterian "until we have completed our investigation and are satisfied that we've done all we can do to address the situation," UPMC Chief Medical and Scientific Officer Dr. Steven D. Shapiro said.
Shapiro said Monday that the suspension could last two or three days. He said the medical center is reaching out to all its patients with scheduled organ transplants and "will do everything we can to make sure patients receive life-saving transplants if they are critically ill."

    Mysterious infections

    Officials have struggled to find the source of the mold that infected patients at UPMC.
    The fungus isn't some kind of killer mold. It's a household kind -- ordinary indoor mold.
    It doesn't threaten the general population, or patients and staff with normal immune systems at the hospital. But UPMC said it believes the mold may have contributed to the deaths of organ transplant patients.
    One transplant patient died Thursday at UPMC Montefiore, the medical center said.
    Two other patients died in October and in June at UPMC Presbyterian, CNN affiliate WTAE-TV reported.
    And UPMC said another patient became deathly ill with the same kind of mold infection.

    Compromised immune system

    People usually have plenty of contact with such molds, and nothing happens, UPMC said.
    "The mold that causes infections like this is common in the environment and is not a risk to anyone except those who are most severely immunocompromised," the medical center said in a statement, without giving the scientific name of the mold.
    That latter group would include people who have received donor organs. Fungal infections are on the list of known health risks after transplant surgery, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
    Hospital hunts for mold after transplant patients with fungus infections die
    The drugs that prevent a patient from rejecting the new organ depress the immune system, opening the patient up to infection risks about which hardly anyone else would have to worry.
    But these infections unfortunately pop up sometimes after a transplant, a CDC study shows. Often the infected patient dies.

    Report: Two patients who died had same room

    WTAE reported that the first two patients who died stayed in the same room in the cardiothoracic ICU at UPMC Presbyterian.
    Mold deposits were found in toilets and behind walls in the unit, and UPMC closed it temporarily and sent in a team to assess and clean the area. UPMC doesn't know how the mold got there, the TV station reported.
    The air quality at UPMC Montefiore has also been checked for mold. "We have not received any concerning results," UPMC said in a statement. Still, it has replaced all of its germ-catching air filters.
    And it has sent in a disinfecting robot to its ICUs to zap any germs with ultraviolet light.
    Nicknamed "Violet," it looks like R2-D2 from "Star Wars" with an extendable neck and a camera flash on steroids.

    Precautionary medication

    Patients who recently received transplants at UPMC Presbyterian have received an antifungal medication, even though they are not infected. "This prophylactic treatment is intended to protect them until we find and fix the source of this problem," a statement said.
    Fungal infections may be more common in patients receiving small bowel sections, lungs, livers and hearts in descending order, the CDC said. Fungal infections also often cause a rash.
    The first patient to die received a lung, as did the patient who recently has been strongly afflicted by the fungus. The patient who died Thursday had received a liver.
    But that patient was neither exposed to the now-closed ICU nor to the other patient who is currently infected, UPMC said. It is still trying to figure out how that case might be related to the others.
    The patient who died last week also had a rash that appeared to be fungal, UPMC said. And preliminary tests indicate the infection was in line with the other cases.

    Next steps

    Shapiro said the medical center has been working with fungal experts, and a CDC team will arrive in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to help investigate.
    UPMC is also checking air seals around windows and doors as well as medical equipment.
    And as a precaution, "linens for our immunocompromised patients will remain completely sealed in plastic from the moment they leave the cleaning facility until they arrive in our intensive care unit," Shapiro said.
    "While we do not have evidence that linens were involved in the fungal infections at UPMC, they have been found to be the culprit in mold cases at other hospitals nationwide."