I realise this might seem like a stupid question on the surface, but bear with me.

On the back of this article about 5 transplant-patients mistakenly receiving HIV-infected organs in a highly regarded Taiwanese hospital, I was wondering how high the risk is of contracting HIV from organs like this?

In the article they say that the patients would be at higher risk of contracting HIV. However, I spoke to a colleague about this article and he said that as far as he knew the HIV-virus can't last for very long outside the human body with fresh blood and living cells. I was also under the impression that the virus could last only a day or so outside the body and I would think that as they keep the organs on ice it would not survive very well.

But like I said according to the article the hospital spokespeople said that the risk would be higher, so I'm inclined to believe them. Is there any proof or statistics regarding this? All I can find on the web are lists of what puts you at risk of getting HIV

  • there was a case in the media this year blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/03/17/…
    – JoseK
    Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 9:19
  • good question :) i auto-thought they got infected Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 12:29
  • Even considering the necessary immunosuppression for transplant recipients (except for cornea transplants which are bloodless) i can find very lityle on hiv tranmission in the US since 1985. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 13:45
  • Organs cannot be preserved more than a very short time outside the body. Transplanted organs are reasonably “fresh” so the risk of containing live HIV can be quite high. Commented Aug 31, 2011 at 14:26
  • @Devil According to today's news, 4 of the 5 organs transplant recipients were found to be infected with HIV. Terrible news. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 7:04

2 Answers 2


It is agreed that HIV can't survive long outside of human body.

HIV in the Environment

Scientists and medical authorities agree that HIV does not survive

well in the environment, making the possibility of environmental transmission remote. HIV is found in varying concentrations or amounts in blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, saliva, and tears. (See below, Saliva, Tears, and Sweat.) In order to obtain data on the survival of HIV, laboratory studies have required the use of artificially high concentrations of laboratory-grown virus. Although these unnatural concentrations of HIV can be kept alive under precisely controlled and limited laboratory conditions, CDC studies have showned that drying of even these high concentrations of HIV reduces the number of infectious viruses by 90 to 99 percent within several hours. Since the HIV concentrations used in laboratory studies are much higher than those actually found in blood or other specimens, drying of HIV- infected human blood or other body fluids reduces the theoretical risk of environmental transmission to that which has been observed--essentially zero.

Incorrect interpretation of conclusions drawn from laboratory

studies have alarmed people unnecessarily. Results from laboratory studies should not be used to determine specific personal risk of infection because 1) the amount of virus studied is not found in human specimens or anyplace else in nature, and 2) no one has been identified with HIV due to contact with an environmental surface; Additionally, since HIV is unable to reproduce outside its living host (unlike many bacteria or fungi, which may do so under suitable conditions), except under laboratory conditions, it does not spread or maintain infectiousness outside its host.

HIV is sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and the presence of oxygen. One place that HIV has been know to survive in is drug injection syringes since these are airtight and often contain blood from the injector.

Ref: http://www.google.com.hk/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCIQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhivinsite.ucsf.edu%2Finsite%3Fpage%3Dask-01-10-20&ei=ZKlcTp7HDc_SiALwsKyzBQ&usg=AFQjCNFsdcAGQGdcJYzXNFS9VFYnPJk0UQ

However, we can't say they are "outside" of the human body in the case you've mentioned. What we know is that the organs were kept in low temperature, and concerning the effect of low temperature, take a look here:

How does temperature effect the survival of HIV?

HIV is very fragile and does not survive well outside the human body. HIV is inactivated by heat and dies after 30 minutes at 56EC (132.8EF). It is also highly susceptible to physical and chemical agents.

If properly stored, HIV is very stable at low temperatures. It can last 7-10 days at 4EC (39.2EF) and months to years at -70EC (-94EF). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stores purified virus preparations in liquid nitrogen (-200EC or -328EF). In all cases, the stability of HIV depends on the presence of the proper concentration

Ref: http://www.internethealthlibrary.com/Health-problems/HIV.htm

I think it is the first chance for human to know the survival ability of HIV in corpse, as there are no report for such cases till now:

Although there have been no specific studies of HIV survival in corpses before or after embalming, no instances of HIV transmission have been reported from an exposure incurred in performing mortuary services. The chemical germicides in embalming fluids have been tested and found to completely inactivate HIV. CDC has also published occupational infection control guidelines that apply to mortuary workers, including embalmers.

Ref: http://www.internethealthlibrary.com/Health-problems/HIV.htm

  • The case mentioned in the comment above by@josek is to the best of my knowledge the first occurrence of HIV transmission by transplantation in the US since the 80's. However I'm not familiar with testing methods used abroad which likely vary widely. Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 12:19
  • 2
    This answer doesn't appear to apply to transplants at all, but rather cites a lot of research that applies to other situations. Embalming has nothing to do with this as organs are generally harvested for transplant prior to embalming. Commented Sep 1, 2011 at 2:47

First, you can get HIV from transplants. The US CDC recommends thorough screening of donors closer to the transplant date, due to this exact case where a donor contracted the virus between the time of initial screening and the transplant date.

Also, according to this, there were four cases of transmission in 2007 from organ transplant. Based on statistics from here, there were around 28,000 organ transplants in 2007.

Yes it can happen, no it's not likely.

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