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.