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Lawsuit Over Rabies-Infected Kidney

The parents of a U.S. teenager who died after receiving a kidney infected with rabies filed a lawsuit Tuesday against those involved in the transplant, including the hospital.

The lawsuit filed in Joshua Hightower's hometown of Gilmer seeks a jury trial and monetary damages. The 18-year-old died in 2004 after the transplant at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

Hightower was one of three people who died of rabies after receiving infected organs in what government officials said were the first documented cases of the disease being spread through organ transplants.

A fourth patient also died from rabies after receiving an artery from the same donor. Another organ recipient died of complications during surgery.

The donor had shown no symptoms of rabies before his death from a brain hemorrhage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

Hightower received the kidney May 5, 2004, but his mother was told by the end of the month that the organ was not functioning because it was damaged during surgery, the lawsuit said. Shortly after, Hightower became violently ill and was readmitted to the hospital. He died June 21.

According to the lawsuit, medical records indicate that the team procuring the kidney thought the recipient transplant center should be aware of signs of infection in the organ donor. The lawsuit said that test results were faxed to the transplant centers.

"They simply did not warn this family of the dangers that were involved with that particular kidney," said attorney Robert Bennett, who represents the Hightowers.

Baylor, which is named in the lawsuit along with several doctors, said federal law prohibits it from addressing details of the patient's care, but it will "vigorously defend" itself against the accusations.

The hospital said in a statement it "follows all protocols related to organ transplantation as established by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the organization that oversees transplantation in the United States."

Also named in the lawsuit are Dallas Nephrology Associates and Dallas Transplant Institute, related health care organizations. A call for comment was not returned Tuesday.

Health officials have said that the strain of rabies detected in the victims' bodies is commonly found in bats.

Organs are not tested for rabies but routine screenings are done for other diseases, said Pam Silvestri, spokeswoman for the Southwest Transplant Alliance.

The alliance, which is not named in the lawsuit, is the local agency that works with families of potential donors and screens the organs.

Silvestri said alliance employees always ask whether the potential donor could have rabies or been in contact with the disease. The infected donor's family said no, she said.

"I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams would think someone has rabies," Silvestri said. "Rabies just wasn't on anyone's radar screens."

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