Safe blood

May 21, 1991

Red Cross officials assure the public that the blood supply is "safer than ever." But the changes the organization announced over the weekend suggest that the system is not yet safe enough. Blood transfusions have always carried some risk of infection, but before AIDS the risk was rarely life-threatening. Now, when blood contaminated with the virus can be a death sentence for a recipient, the resulting strain on the system of collecting, testing and distributing blood has been enormous.

The Red Cross, which provides half the nation's blood supply, deserves great credit for taking steps to institute a new computerized system and other procedures to prevent the slip-ups that have recently drawn criticism from Congress. But the new changes still don't get to the heart of the problem. Blood is not tested directly for the AIDS virus itself, but rather for antibodies to the virus -- which may take six months or more to develop after the virus enters the system. Thus, there is a "window of vulnerability" during which an infected donor may still give blood. This is what the Red Cross has yet to address directly, and until it does it will not be able to entirely calm public fears about the blood supply.

But the Red Cross may need some help in finding solutions. For instance, while it is possible to test directly for the AIDS virus, the test is expensive. But even if cost is the issue, wouldn't it be more effective to test the blood supply than to treat someone who contracts AIDS through a transfusion? Another possibility is freezing blood for six months, until such time as donors could be effectively tested for AIDS antibodies. These issues may well demand a broader review of the blood system than one organization is able to undertake.

What is clear, however, is that the Red Cross has become an indispensable part of the nation's health care system, and the organization owes it to the American people to provide safe blood -- just as the country owes the Red Cross and other blood collection agencies encouragement and support in devising the best ways of accomplishing that task.

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